WASHINGTON - Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Friday he has reached out to former Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney about possibly running for the Senate, if a vacancy opens in Utah.
There has been much speculation about whether seven-term Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch will retire instead of running for re-election next year. The 83-year-old Hatch has fueled some of it, saying on Friday that he suggested that McConnell reach out to Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts.
"I'm planning on running, but if I for some reason withdrew, I'd be thrilled if Mitt Romney would be willing to consider it," Hatch said. "He's a big supporter, he and his whole family."
Hatch has been in office since 1977, making him the most senior Republican in the Senate. He chairs the powerful Senate Finance Committee and, as president pro tem of the Senate, is third in line to succeed the president.
McConnell made it clear that he would support Hatch if he wants to run again. And Romney has said he would only run with Hatch's blessing.
McConnell told reporters at a Capitol Hill news conference, "I've had some conversations with Mitt Romney. Obviously, I'm an Orrin Hatch supporter. Orrin has to decide what he wants to do. If he wants to run again, I'm for him."
Hatch has a resume thick with legislative victories. A conservative with a reputation for working with Democrats, Hatch was close friends with the late Sen. Ted Kennedy, the liberal Democrat from Massachusetts.
In reaching out to Romney, Hatch said he is trying to prevent a divisive Utah primary over his successor. In 2010, Hatch's good friend, the late Utah Sen. Robert Bennett, was ousted by tea party favorite Sen. Mike Lee.
"I wouldn't want that to happen again," Hatch said. "If (Romney) ran, I would hope that everybody would get behind him. He'd be excellent."
If Hatch does retire, Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, could be in the mix to replace him. Chaffetz raised Hatch's ire in 2012 when he publicly considered challenging Hatch for his seat. Chaffetz ultimately decided to run for re-election for his House seat.
In promoting Romney, Hatch is making it clear whom he would rather replace him.
Romney's Mormon faith helps make him popular among many Utah voters. He also led the organizing committee for the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City.