SALT LAKE CITY — Sutherland Institute President Boyd Matheson said Monday he will not run for the Utah Senate seat currently held by fellow Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch.
Matheson, who attracted national attention after being encouraged last month to get in the race by Steve Bannon, former White House chief strategist to President Donald Trump, said it was a tough decision.
"I've seen the inside. I know what's going on there," Matheson, former chief of staff to Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, said. He said he saw himself as someone who "could be part of a new generation of folks that could really transform the Senate."
Now, however, Matheson said he will try to influence Congress through a new outside political group associated with the conservative think tank, the Sutherland Leadership Center, intended to help candidates around the country.
"I think I could do more outside," he said.
Hatch has not yet said whether he will seek re-election in 2018 after 42 years in office. Mitt Romney, the Republican Party's 2012 presidential pick, is reportedly preparing for a run, possibly even if Hatch decides to try for an eighth term.
Matheson's decision could mean Bannon is looking for another Republican to run for Senate in Utah, University of Utah Hinckley Institute of Politics Director Jason Perry said.
"Bannon has indicated a desire to take out the Republican leadership, whether it's Orrin Hatch or Mitt Romney," Perry said. "I doubt that he has forgotten about the state of Utah."
But a Bannon-backed candidate might not have an easy time with Utah voters, given the reception they gave Trump in last year's election. The president won the state, but with just 45.5 percent of the vote, his lowest percentage of victory nationwide.
"One thing that is clear, is Bannon's style and approach do not resonate with Utah voters," Perry said. "Whoever he picks will face a serious challenge from either Sen. Hatch or Mitt Romney."
Bannon has pledged to target candidates for Congress who aren't supportive of the president's agenda. Already some members of Congress critical of Trump, including Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., have said they're not seeking re-election next year.
During the 2016 primary, Romney spoke out strongly against Trump. In a widely covered speech at the Hinckley Institute, Romney labeled Trump a phony and a fraud and urged voters to choose one of the other Republicans still in the race.
Matheson said his discussion with Bannon about the race never reached the level of being offered specific support. He said he believes Bannon and others on the right and left are the ones shaping political policy, not the candidates.
"Both political parties are a disaster right now. They're both in real jeopardy," Matheson said, predicting that may lead to "a growing trend" in Congress of picking and choosing when to back the president's policies.
He said he sees the race as focused on Hatch and Romney.
"The reasons for Mitt to run, I think are there. He can make it worthwhile if he has a vision to go back and really treat this like a Bain Capital turnaround type of project," Matheson said, referring to Romney's past career, reviving failing companies.
Romney, he said, would bring a national stature to the Senate as a former presidential nominee.
"He can weigh in very differently than most freshman senators could," Matheson said, regardless of what specific assignments he might receive as a newcomer in the seniority-based system.
There could possibly be a role for Romney in Senate leadership, Matheson suggested, noting that decision is up to the Republican conference and is "nebulous in terms of rules."
Romney's close friends have told the Deseret News he apparently hasn't ruled out a run even if Hatch doesn't retire. Romney himself has stayed quiet since telling the newspaper in February "all doors are open" after mentioning the Senate race.
Hatch has also not made his intentions clear, although he has said he'll make a decision by the end of the year. He is helping lead the GOP efforts to pass tax-cutting legislation as chairman of the powerful Senate Finance Committee.
"I think if he chooses to run, he's going to have to base it on a vision of what's next," Matheson said. He said there needs to be significant change to the "divisive game" played by politicians in Washington.12 comments on this story
In a video posted by the Sutherland Institute about his decision, Matheson said both Trump loyalists and opponents "are completely united on one thing — their absolute frustration with the lack of leadership in the United States Senate."
He said nothing is more important than preparing elected officials through the new center to transform existing institutions, including Congress.
"We have become far too comfortable settling for sorry excuses for leadership," Matheson said in the video, "and far too accustomed to the consultant-certified, pollster-approved, politically expedient election messaging we get from politicians."