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Orrin Hatch, longest-serving Republican U.S. senator, dies at 88

Hatch was also the longest-serving senator in Utah history. He was first elected in 1976 and retired in 2019.
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Orrin Hatch, the longtime Republican senator from Utah, died Saturday in Salt Lake City at 88, the Orrin G. Hatch Foundation announced.

Hatch, who retired in January 2019 at the end of his last term, served in the Senate for 42 years, making him the longest-serving Republican senator.

He died surrounded by family, the foundation said. The cause of death was not released.

“Senator Orrin G. Hatch personified the American Dream,” Matt Sandgren, the executive director of the Hatch Foundation, said in a statement. “Born the son of a carpenter and plaster lather, he overcame the poverty of his youth to become a United States Senator.”

Hatch was also the longest-serving senator in Utah history. He was first elected in 1976 and announced his retirement in January 2018.

He referred to his past as an amateur boxer in making the announcement, saying in a video: "Every good fighter knows when to hang up the gloves, and for me that time is soon approaching.”

President Joe Biden, who served with Hatch in the Senate for more than three decades, said he "was, quite simply, an American original."

"He was the fighter who carried with him the memory of his humble upbringing near Pittsburgh, who never humored a bully, or shied from a challenge," Biden said in a statement Sunday. "The young man who, upon receiving his degree from Brigham Young University, was the first in his family to graduate college; the young lawyer who built a successful law practice; and the Senator who sprinted from meeting to meeting because there was so much to do — indeed, when Senator Hatch retired, he had sponsored or co-sponsored more legislation than any Senator at the time."

Hatch was born in Homestead Park, Pennsylvania, in 1934.

Raised in what he called “a ramshackle house” during the Great Depression, Hatch went on to be chairman of three Senate committees and put his stamp on major pieces of legislation across the policy spectrum.

Hatch graduated from Brigham Young University in 1959 with a bachelor's degree in history and from the University of Pittsburgh with a law degree in 1962. He moved to Utah in 1969.

Utah Gov. Spencer Cox tweeted that “Utah mourns with the Hatch family.”

"His legacy of public service truly made a difference in our state and nation," Cox, a Republican, wrote.

In this file photo, President Donald Trump awards the Presidential Medal of Freedom to retiring Utah U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch on Nov. 16, 2018, at the White House.
President Donald Trump awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom to retiring Sen. Orrin Hatch at the White House on Nov. 16, 2018.Saul Loeb / AFP - Getty Images

Hatch was a member and former bishop in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

He ran for his first public office in 1976, narrowly upsetting Democratic Sen. Frank Moss, and then won a second term by beating Democratic Salt Lake City Mayor Ted Wilson in 1982. He had no serious challenger after that.

Hatch sought the 2000 GOP nomination for president but ended his brief bid after the Iowa caucuses and endorsed George W. Bush. When he entered the race, he said that he believed in miracles and that "it would probably take that to elect me," according to reports at the time.

In November 2018, Hatch was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the country’s highest civilian honor, by President Donald Trump.

At the ceremony, Trump called Hatch “a true American statesman” and said, “His achievements are too numerous to count.” He noted Hatch’s long service in the Senate and the passage of a major tax reform bill.

As chairman of the Finance Committee, Hatch was instrumental in getting the 2017 Republican tax reform bill through Congress, giving Trump one of the biggest wins of his administration.

In his long career, Hatch sponsored or co-sponsored more than 750 bills that became law, the Hatch Foundation said.

In his farewell speech, on Dec. 12, 2018, Hatch bemoaned the lack of regular order and said “the Senate, as an institution, is in crisis or at least may be in crisis.”

“We must restore the culture of comity, compromise and mutual respect that used to exist here. Both in our personal and public conduct, we must be the very change we want to see in the country. We must not be enemies but friends,” Hatch said.

Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, who at 41 years is among the 10 longest-serving senators, called Hatch a friend and said he was saddened by his death. They served on the Judiciary and Finance committees together for decades, Grassley, 88, tweeted.

Hatch was a conservative on most economic and social issues, but he teamed with Democrats on stem cell research, rights for people with disabilities, children’s health insurance and other issues.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said Hatch was a "legend in the Senate — someone who could work across the aisle but effectively fight for the conservative cause."

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., tweeted that he often worked across the aisle on behalf of American families and that many of them were praying for his family.

Former Vice President Mike Pence tweeted that Hatch was "a true statesman who represented the best" of Utah and America.

In his farewell speech, Hatch recounted “unlikely” friendships with Democrats, including the late Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., and wondered whether their friendship could exist today.

He also championed GOP issues like limits on abortion and helped shape the Supreme Court, including defending Clarence Thomas against sexual harassment allegations during confirmation hearings.

Hatch also advocated for a three-digit number for a national suicide prevention and mental health hotline, and he sponsored a bill that was signed into law in 2018 that required a study by the Federal Communications Commission. The 988 number is set to go live in July. Calls and texts will reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline network.

After Hatch announced his retirement, Mitt Romney ran for and won the Senate seat. Romney, a Republican, on Saturday called Hatch “a man of vision and unparalleled legislative accomplishment.”

“Few men have made their mark on the Senate as he did. Our judiciary, our economy and our national character are more elevated and more secure thanks to his years of leadership. A great man, and like his good friend Ted Kennedy, a lion of the Senate,” Romney said in a statement.

Hatch is survived by his wife, Elaine, and their six children. Funeral arrangements will be announced later, the Hatch Foundation said.