SALT LAKE CITY — Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, announced Tuesday he is retiring at the end of this term, ending months of speculation about whether he would run again.
"I've always been a fighter," Hatch said in a video announcement posted on YouTube and tweeted shortly before noon. "But every good fighter knows when to hang up the gloves. And for me, that time is soon approaching."
He then said "after much prayer and discussion with family and friends, I've decided to retire at the end of this term." Hatch had spent the holidays with his family in Utah, debating what to do.
Before making his decision public, Hatch assembled the staff in his Salt Lake office to let them know first. With his Washington, D.C., office watching via video conference, he delivered the news.
The mood was "quite somber," said his spokeswoman of nearly 24 years, Heather Barney. "No one knew. I couldn't have told you even this morning for sure what I thought would happen."
The decision was a difficult one for Hatch, she said, and bittersweet for those around him who were happy to see him "going out on top" but also aware of how hard it is for him to leave a lifetime of service.
"It kind of takes your breath away a little bit," Barney said. "He really is still a fighter. That's why it's hard. He's not really slowed down. He has the grit and determination you don't see really very often in people."
In his video, he describes his childhood "during the Great Depression, living in a ramshackle house," and that "only in a nation like ours could someone like me — the scrappy son of a simple carpenter — grow up to become a United States senator."
Hatch cites his accomplishments during more than four decades in the Senate, including authoring more bills that have become law than any living member of Congress.
He said he has played a central role in major legislation and in the confirmation of every current member of the U.S. Supreme Court, but one of his proudest achievements is the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
Hatch was first elected to the Senate in 1976, after convincing voters the three-term Democratic incumbent had served too long. Now 83, he had promised during his last campaign six years ago that he wouldn't run again.
But then Hatch began raising the possibility of one more term. He is chairman of the powerful Senate Finance Committee, a position he could hold for two more years, and Senate president pro-tempore, third in the line of presidential succession.
Hatch is the most senior Republican in a GOP-controlled Senate and has worked closely with President Donald Trump to pass the party's tax-cutting plan and on shrinking the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments in Utah.
It was Hatch who invited Trump to come to Utah in December to announce he was making significant reductions in the monuments set aside by past Democratic presidents, and to meet with LDS Church leaders.
Trump praised Hatch in a speech at the Utah Capitol and urged him to stay in office. The GOP's 2012 presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, said to be readying a run for the Utah Senate seat, has been one of Trump's toughest critics.
Romney was initially encouraged by Hatch to get in the race but has stayed quiet about his plans. The length of time Hatch has taken to finally decide about 2018 has been seen as keeping other candidates from considering a run.
On Facebook Wednesday, Romney referred to Hatch as his friend and thanked him for his service.
He pointed out that Hatch is "the longest-serving Republican senator in U.S. history," and said he has "represented the interests of Utah with distinction and honor."
But Romney said nothing about the Senate race in his post.
Derek Miller, who has looked at running for the Senate seat, said he expects Romney to get in the race quickly.
"I think before the end of this week you'll see Gov. Romney running. He'd be smart to make an announcement sooner rather than later," Miller said. "The longer he waits, the more chaos it facilitates."
Miller, a former chief of staff to Gov. Gary Herbert and now president and CEO of the World Trade Center Utah, said he will be "fully supportive" of a Romney run and step aside.
Miller said he wasn't surprised by Hatch's choice to retire.
"As time has gone on, especially the last couple of weeks, it's been increasingly clear he was going to keep his promise," he said. Going home for the holidays "was probably the deal clincher for him."
Not only did Hatch get to be reminded "there is a life outside of Washington, D.C.," he can leave the Senate knowing he "accomplished exactly what he set out to accomplish, which is this historic tax reform," Miller said.
Now, Hatch can "walk off the field after winning the Super Bowl and call it good," he said. "Not many people get to walk out on top. He's one of them."