SALT LAKE CITY — Scott Howell, the Democrat who ran against Sen. Orrin Hatch in 2012, said he'll never forget the senator turning to him during a break in a radio debate and talking with finality about what was then going to be his last race.
"He got all emotional and he goes, 'Scott, this is a historical day,'" Howell recalled. "Then he says, 'You will be the last person to ever debate Orrin Hatch.' I went, 'What?' He looked at me and he said, 'I will never run again. This is it. It's over.'"
The Utah Republican had already promised voters a seventh term would be his last before that year's June primary, his first since being elected to the Senate in 1976, when he convinced voters it was time to unseat a three-term Democratic incumbent.
Howell said that committment from Hatch had a "dramatic effect" on the 2012 race, with voters telling him to wait his turn. "You can run again. I heard that time and time again," the former minority leader of the Utah State Senate said.
Nearly a year and a half ago, Republican Derek Miller, a former chief of staff to Gov. Gary Herbert, sat down with Hatch to tell the senator he was considering making a run for the seat.
"It was definitely with the understanding that Sen. Hatch had said he wasn't going to run again. It was not my intent to challenge an incumbent Republican," said Miller, president and CEO of the World Trade Center Utah.
"I told him I didn't believe it was my place to put him on the spot by asking him what he was going to do," Miller said. "I believed, like I think most Utahns did, that he believed what he said and would be true to what he said" about not running.
He said he received no assurances then and is still waiting for Hatch to say definitively whether he's in or out — an announcement now expected sometime after the holidays.
"I can understand how somebody in my position who's interested in the race would be highly frustrated by it. But I can also tell you personally, I am not," Miller said.
"That's not to say that I think it's right."
Hatch "should have made his intentions clear months ago," he said, acknowledging it's not an easy choice to make. Thanks to his seniority, Hatch chairs the powerful Senate Finance Committee and is third in the line of presidential succession.
"I do believe it is time for him to step aside. I think most Utahns feel that way," Miller said. "I'm trying to be respectful of the fact that it's a tough decision and he's got a lot of things to weigh. He'll make the decision. … We'll just all wait and see."
Among those waiting on Hatch is Mitt Romney, the Republican Party's presidential nominee in 2012 who now calls Utah home. Romney has said little publicly about the race, but is reportedly putting together a campaign.
Hatch's promise in 2012 that he'd be ready to retire in six years was unusual because "politicians are often cagey about whether they'll run again," said Chris Karpowitz, co-director of BYU's Center for Study of Elections and Democracy.
But the senator was also in a difficult situation politically. Two years earlier, the growing tea party movement had claimed its first victory nationally after ousting Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah, at the state GOP convention.
"There was good reason to suspect that was a meaningful promise. I think already in 2012, there was a sense of voter fatigue. He had been there a long time," Karpowitz said. "That was an attempt to deal with the fact there was a desire for change."
Voters may not be as willing as they were in 2012 to give Hatch "one more shot," the political science professor said, noting polls that show lagging support for the senator.
"I think it's a harder sell this time around," he said. "If there was a sense of voter fatigue in 2012, that same feeling is more palpable and maybe more widespread in 2018."
Because Hatch said he'd leave next year, that "raises the stakes for his argument this time around about why he needs to go back," Karpowitz said, such as working closely with President Donald Trump as a key player on the tax cut bill.
"There's an argument he can make," the professor said. "But he will have to persuade people the value of sending him back for another term is more important than keeping any promise he has made."
Hatch is making sure Utahns know what he's doing in Washington.
A week ago, the president traveled to Salt Lake City at the senator's invitation to sign a pair of proclamations shrinking the size of the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments — and endorse Hatch's re-election.
The president praised the state's senior senator in the Utah Capitol rotunda, telling an enthusiastic invitation-only audience Dec. 4 that he hoped Hatch "will continue to serve your state and your country in the Senate for a very long time to come."
That story was overshadowed by Trump's endorsement earlier that same day of embattled Alabama GOP Senate candidate Roy Moore, who has been accused of sexual misconduct with teenage girls — charges he denies.
Hatch told reporters traveling with the president on Air Force One shortly after landing in Washington, D.C., that Trump had little choice because he "needs every Republican he can get" to back his agenda in Congress.
After former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon accused Romney at a Moore campaign rally of having "hid behind" his Mormon faith to avoid the draft during the Vietnam War by serving an LDS mission in France, Hatch had a different take.
The senator said during an access live event with voters he had not himself endorsed Moore and called the allegations against him "incredibly serious." Hatch also condemned Bannon's attack on Romney as "disappointing and unjustified."
Romney was targeted over a tweet he sent warning that Moore "would be a stain on the GOP and on the nation" and calling his alleged victims "courageous heroes. No vote, no majority is worth losing our honor, our integrity."
The former leader of the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City, Romney is one of the most popular politicians in Utah. A new UtahPolicy.com poll showed Romney has a 69 percent approval rating among the state's voters, compared to 48 percent for Hatch.
Kirk Jowers, a longtime Romney supporter, said he believes Utah "will have an almost guaranteed Sen. Hatch or Sen. Romney" as a result of other candidates staying out of the race.
"Utah's fortunate to be in a position where we will either have the most senior Republican member of the Senate as well as the chairman of the most powerful committee or the single-most prominent non-elected Republican," Jowers said.
He said there had been the possibility of a "potential domino effect of Sen. Hatch retiring and then (Reps.) Mia Love or Chris Stewart campaigning for that seat," creating other openings.
Love, R-Utah, had been overheard by a Politico reporter last month being asked if she was running for Senate and saying, "No, but Hatch isn't sticking around. We're trying to get Mitt." She said the statement was taken out of context. Hatch's office offered a strong rebuttal to those comments, saying the congresswoman was "misinformed."
Stewart, also R-Utah, has said he "almost certainly" would run for the Senate if Hatch doesn't. He told the Deseret News in September he didn't "take the talk of Mitt running very seriously."
It was Hatch who touted Romney as a possible successor earlier this year, saying in March he'd be ready to retire if he "could get a really outstanding person to run," calling Romney "perfect" for the position.
Romney, one of Trump's harshest critics during the 2016 presidential race, told the Deseret News in February "all doors are open" after bringing up the Senate race in Utah during a discussion of his political future.
Two of his closest friends in Utah said last month in interviews with the Deseret News that there should be no doubt Romney is serious about a Senate run but he's in a "holding pattern" until Hatch makes up his mind.
One Republican who considered getting in the race but decided against it is Sutherland Institute President Boyd Matheson. He attracted national attention in October after Bannon encouraged him "to take a look at" the race.
Matheson said Hatch "wasn't a determining factor at all in my decision." But he said the senator taking so long to announce his plans hurts the process because it does limit the voices in the race.
"People have been very deferential of Sen. Hatch, rightly so," said the leader of the conservative think tank who served as chief of staff to Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah. "But dragging it out to this extent hasn't been good for the public discourse."
Matheson said he hoped his decision not to run might "create a lane" for someone else. A late entry in the race who's not as well known as Romney might have trouble raising money, but Matheson said there's always a chance.
One candidate who has also talked with Bannon, is state Rep. Dan McCay, R-Riverton, sources told the Deseret News. McCay declined comment, but is said to be seriously considering a bid.
Former state lawmaker Chris Herrod, who ran against Hatch in 2012 but did not advance from the Republican state convention to the primary, said he would vote for Hatch over Romney.
As a freshman senator, Romney would "get more talk shows than somebody else, but I don't think it will be the sweet job Mitt thinks it would be. So I've never understood why Mitt would run," Herrod said.
Herrod, who ran in this year's special 3rd Congressional District election but lost in the primary, said Romney has "burned a lot of bridges" with conservatives nationwide over his criticism of Trump.
He questioned whether Hatch really wants Romney to take his place in the Senate.
"Respect isn't quite the right word, but my awe of his political maneuvering has gone up a little bit higher," Herrod said. "I would now not put it past him that his strategy wasn't to give it to Mitt. It was to delay things and delay things."45 comments on this story
Hatch spokesman Matt Whitlock said in a statement that the senator "has remained consistent throughout the year that he will announce a final decision about whether to run again by the end of the year."
He said Hatch is now "in the middle of critical fights for Utah, including passing tax reform for Utah families and extending funding for the Children's Health Insurance Program, among other critical things Utahns sent him to Washington to do."
As for deciding about another Senate run, Whitlock said Hatch "plans to spend the holidays with his family and will make an announcement soon."