Orrin G. Hatch, the oldest Republican senator in history who was part of Utah politics for more than four decades, died Saturday at age 88.
His death was announced in a statement from his foundation, which did not specify a cause.
A staunch conservative on most economic and social issues, he has also teamed up with Democrats many times over his long career on issues ranging from stem cell research to disability rights to expansion. children’s health insurance. He also struck up friendships across the aisle, particularly with the late Democratic Senator Edward M. Kennedy.
Hatch has also championed GOP issues such as abortion limits and helped shape the U.S. Supreme Court, including defending Justice Clarence Thomas against sexual harassment allegations during confirmation hearings.
He then became an ally of Republican President Donald Trump, using his role as chairman of the powerful Senate Finance Committee to secure a major rewrite of US tax codes on the president’s desk. In return, Trump helped Hatch solve a key problem for Utah Republicans with a controversial decision to drastically reduce the size of two national monuments that had been declared by former presidents.
Hatch retired in 2019. Thanks to Trump encouraging him to run again, the longtime senator should have faced a tough primary battle and vowed to retire. Hatch instead stepped aside and encouraged Republican Mitt Romney, a critic of the former president, to run as his replacement.
“Few men have marked the Senate as he has,” Romney wrote in a tribute to his friend and predecessor, praising his “vision and legislative accomplishments.” Utah Sen. Mike Lee, for his part, called Hatch “a friend, a mentor, and an example to me and countless others.”
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican from Kentucky, praised Hatch’s legislative acumen.
“Orrin’s decades of leadership have led to an endless catalog of major legislative achievements and historic confirmations,” McConnell said in a statement. “He entered the Senate as a principled young conservative in the 1970s, when the modern conservative movement was in its infancy. He has stood by his principles his entire career and applied them to issues such as the landmark Tax Reform Act of 2017 and the work of the Judiciary Committee to enormous benefit to our country.
Hatch was also known for his parallel career as a singer and music recording artist with themes from his religious faith, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
He is survived by his wife, Elaine, and their six children.
Hatch came to the Senate after an election victory in 1976 and became the longest-serving senator in Utah history, winning a seventh term in 2012. He became acting Senate president in 2015 when Republicans took Senate control. This position placed him third in the presidential succession behind then-Vice President Joe Biden and the Speaker of the House. His tenure places him as the longest serving senator in the GOP, behind several Democrats.
One issue Hatch returned to during his career was whether to limit or ban abortion, a stance that placed him at the center of one of the nation’s most contentious issues. He authored a variety of “Hatch Amendments” to the Constitution aimed at reducing the availability of abortions.
In 1991, he became one of Thomas’s most vocal defenders against law professor Anita Hill’s sexual harassment allegations. Hatch read aloud at confirmation hearings for “The Exorcist,” and he suggested that Hill stole details from the book.
Although unquestionably conservative, Hatch has at times differed from many of his fellow conservatives, including President George W. Bush, when Hatch lobbied for federal funding for embryonic stem cell research.
In 1997, Hatch joined Kennedy in sponsoring a $24 billion program for states to provide health insurance to children of low-income parents who do not qualify for Medicaid.
“He exemplified a generation of lawmakers high on the principles of comity and compromise, and he embodied those principles better than anyone,” Hatch Foundation President A. Scott Anderson said in a statement. “In a nation divided, Orrin Hatch helped show us a better way by forging meaningful friendships on both sides of the aisle. Now, more than ever, we would do well to follow his example.
Hatch also helped pass legislation strengthening child pornography laws and making illegal downloading of music a prosecutable crime.
For Hatch, the music download problem was personal. A member of the faith widely known as Mormon, he frequently wrote religious songs and recorded music in his spare time in order to unwind from the stresses of life in Washington. Hatch earned around $39,000 in royalties from his songs in 2005.
One of his songs, “Unspoken”, went platinum after appearing on “WOW Hits 2005”, a compilation of Christian pop music.
In 2000, Hatch sought the Republican nomination for president, saying he had more experience in Washington than his opponents and could work with Democrats. Hatch easily recognized that winning would be a long shot. He withdrew from the race after winning just 1% of the vote in the Iowa caucuses, then endorsed George W. Bush.
He became a staunch opponent of President Barack Obama’s 2009 Health Care Act after he backed out of early bipartisan talks on the legislation. At one point he said of the bill, “It is 2,074 pages. It’s enough to make you vomit.
Hatch faced a tough re-election battle from a conservative candidate in 2012, two years after a wave of tea parties ousted longtime Republican Utah senator Bob Bennett . Bennett and Hatch both voted in favor of a bank bailout in 2008 that displeased those on the far right.
Hatch contributed about $10 million to his 2012 run and worked to build support from Tea Party conservatives.
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Hatch used to play tough – he learned to box as a boy in Pittsburgh to fend off attacks from older, taller students. Not afraid to fight, he said he always made it a point to quickly become friends with those he had a fight with.
When Hatch announced he wouldn’t be running again in 2018, he said “every good fighter knows when to hang up the gloves.”
After moving to Utah in the early 1970s, Hatch – a former bishop of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints – ran for his first public office in 1976 and narrowly upset the senator. Democrat Frank Moss.
In 1982, he held off challenger Ted Wilson, the Democratic mayor of Salt Lake City, to win a second term by a solid margin.
It was never seriously challenged again.
Orrin Grant Hatch was born in 1934 in Pittsburgh to a carpenter and plasterer. He married Elaine Hanson in 1957 and graduated from Brigham Young University in 1959. He received a law degree from the University of Pittsburgh in 1962 and was a partner in the law firm of Thomson, Rhodes and Grigsby in that town until 1969. Later he was a partner in Hatch & Plumb of Salt Lake City.
Her six children are Brent, Marcia, Scott, Kimberly, Alysa and Jess.