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Sen. Orrin Hatch’s legacy is one of bipartisanship — and contradiction

Orrin Hatch, former U.S. Senator from Utah, official photo 2015
United States Senate Photography
Orrin Hatch, former U.S. Senator from Utah, official photo 2015

Orrin G. Hatch, the longest-serving Republican senator in history (nearly 42 years) and a fixture in Utah politics for just as long, died Saturday at age 88.

Born in Homestead, Pennsylvania in 1934, Hatch — a lifelong member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — later attended Brigham Young University in the early 1950s.

“Sen. Hatch is one of those beautiful rags to riches American dream story,” said Leah Murray, the academic director of the Walker Institute of Politics & Public Service at Weber State University.

His first election in the ‘70s would eventually turn into a seven-term tenure where he established himself as a staunch conservative on economic and social issues, but not so rigid that he wouldn’t reach out and work with Democrats. Even as he championed issues like abortion limits, he teamed up on other issues ranging from stem cell research to expanding children’s health insurance.

“You see these moments of — there are Americans we are going to take care of, that would very much Venn diagram with a [former Democratic Sen.] Ted Kennedy view of the world,” Murray said of Hatch’s contradictions and cooperation. There was, however, one identifying mark: “Utah is a state that takes care of its neighbors.”

This interview was edited for clarity.

Caroline Ballard: Hatch was the longest-serving Republican senator in U.S. history. But in the beginning, he was kind of a scrappy unknown.  

Leah Murray: Sen. Hatch is one of those beautiful rags to riches American dream story. He grows up in poverty in a home that doesn't have plumbing. So that first race in the 1970s, it's the moment when the Republican Party is turning hardcore into conservatism. But if you think of Ronald Reagan's presidential race in 1976 that fails, it's a Reagan Republican kind of vision. So Orrin Hatch is an unknown, but he's part of this new image of what Republicanism can be. So he runs, and I love his tagline in that campaign because he runs against an incumbent and he basically says, 'What do you call a person who's been in office this long? You call them home.' And then he's going to serve the longest time ever.

CB: His whole career is sprinkled with these contradictions. He was known, among other things, for defending religious freedom, reshaping the courts, opposing the Affordable Care Act and championing expanded health care for children like CHIP. How do his banner issues fit into the priorities of the Republican Party and his constituents over time?

LM: It fits into the Republican Party mission nationally if you envision the Republican Party as Reagan's party or George W. Bush's party. Because those men were also full of contradictions. In fact, like George W. Bush even uses the phrase “compassionate conservatism.” So they're going to take care of children. So when we talk about the child health insurance program that Senator Hatch pushes through — they're going to take care of education, George W. Bush having No Child Left Behind.

You see these moments of like, there are Americans we are going to take care of, that would very much Venn diagram with a Ted Kennedy view of the world. Utah is a state that takes care of its neighbors. So their contradictions are a result of a man who has a great deal of care and compassion, but that is run through with an economic conservatism. To me, it's like I've got a disposition on the world that says the government should be generally limited, but I'm going to take care of kids. The government should be limited, but I'm going to try to work out an immigration policy that's more OK. I hear you talking about contradictions, but I see it more as complicated.

CB: Hatch was known for bipartisanship. In his farewell speech on the Senate floor in 2018, he lamented how combative politics had become. He eventually became a staunch ally of President Donald Trump. How does that transformation reflect the transformation of the GOP?

LM: The Republican Party is loyal to its candidates. So when President Trump becomes its president, the party is going to be loyal. So I would see Hatch as saying, 'this is our guy. Now he's on our team and he's who we have as president, and I'm going to try to help him get his policies through.' I don't think that it's mutually exclusive from being someone who is also Ted Kennedy's very dear friend because Hatch is going to say, 'Trump is the president today. I've been here through six presidents.' He is always playing the long game. And if I'm going to play this long game and I'm going to do it well and represent Utah well, I have to be capable of being friends with everyone –– and maybe not always friendly –– but always being able to have a conversation.

CB: Hatch convinced Mitt Romney to run for his seat. Are there ways that Sen. Romney is continuing Hatch's legacy? And given the direction of the party, can he continue that legacy?

LM: What I love about Orrin Hatch is he decided to step down very early, so that way the party could get its ducks in a row and figure out who would be the person who replaces him. Utah is a little state and punched way above its weight for a really long time because of the power Hatch had in the Senate. Sen. Lee is still relatively junior at that point. Let's make sure we have someone who can rise to the challenge of keeping the punching above the weight happening inside the Senate. Sen. Romney, I think, is in the mode of Sen. Hatch. I want to be clear his [Romney’s] voting with President Trump's agenda was somewhere in the order of like 85%, but he is willing to be bipartisan.

The second part of your question –– whether he can continue –– is such an interesting and hard question to answer. I think the Republican Party right now is figuring out who it is. Sen. Romney, if he is the party that looks more like Ronald Reagan, Sen. Hatch and the Republican Party decides to be the party that looks like Marjorie Taylor Greene, then Sen. Romney might have an issue. So it's not just about Sen. Romney, but it's about where the party decides to go and how it identifies itself.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Caroline is the Assistant News Director
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