Big political news in Utah this week when on Monday U.S. Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, announced he would not run against Sen. Orrin Hatch, also R-Utah, next year.
Most politicos thought Chaffetz was in the race.
And, indeed, Chaffetz had been doing about everything over the last few months required to set such a stage: Traveling the state for campaign-paid-for Town Hall meetings; criticizing Hatch right and left; telling confidants that he was going to challenge and beat Hatch; and so on.
But I, for one, always had my doubts. I wrote in this column that I believed when the final decision had to be made, Chaffetz would choose to stay in his conservative 3rd Congressional District rather than risk all in a Hatch fight for the GOP Senate nomination.
Chaffetz is a relatively young man, but a very ambitious one. Self-doubt is not a big part of his life. He likes (is love too strong a word?) the national spot light.
He’s been on national TV shows, including The Colbert Report.
CNN followed Chaffetz and a Democratic House freshman several years ago during their first year in Congress.
If he failed in a Hatch challenge all that is gone.
Chaffetz has had high-profile success in the House in just 2 1/2 years. A Tea Party darling, Chaffetz has sponsored important legislation and lead significant debates. He likely can continue to get the limelight, both on his own and with the support of GOP House leaders.
If he failed in a Hatch challenge all that is gone.
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, may well be driven from the top leadership post next year, perhaps by another member of House leadership.
That may mean an opening in leadership, something that Chaffetz would greatly like to try for.
Yes, Chaffetz is young and has little seniority in GOP ranks.
But if he failed in a Hatch challenge that chance, as remote as it may seem, is gone.
Hatch is not former Sen. Bob Bennett, who was driven from office in the 2010 state GOP convention. Hatch has a lot of campaign cash, is fund raising like mad, and is putting together the most organized neighborhood caucus fight in state history.
Tea Party and just-plain-angry anti-Bennett GOP delegates rode a wave of displeasure in taking the 18-year-incumbent out.
Hatch campaign manager Dave Hansen is building his own pro-Hatch delegate wave.
If Chaffetz failed in mounting a similar delegate organization, he is gone from Utah politics.
Bennett had the perfect convention storm against him – anti-incumbent delegates and two strong intraparty challengers.
Combined, that forced Bennett into a third-place finish in the convention and out of office. The two strong challengers – Tim Bridgewater and Mike Lee – advanced to the GOP primary.
But if Chaffetz got into the Hatch race, he likely would have frightened off any other real challengers. It would be just Hatch and Chaffetz in next April’s GOP state convention.
And the possibility that Chaffetz could get 60 percent of the delegate vote and eliminate Hatch is slim. All Hatch would need was 40 percent of the vote and he would advance to a primary against Chaffetz, where Hatch’s better name recognition and overwhelming cash advantage would be tough to overcome.
If Chaffetz couldn’t win the convention, he’d likely lose the primary, and be gone from politics.
Chaffetz is relatively safe in his 3rd Congressional District, no matter how the GOP Legislature redraws it in an October special session.
Getting out of the Senate race now gives Chaffetz time to influence how the 3rd District is drawn (Chaffetz says he won’t get involved in that redrawing, but certainly he will be consulted).
A safe GOP 3rd District means Chaffetz – if he keeps his GOP conservative base happy – could serve in the House for another decade. That gives him more time to gain seniority and influence.
If he failed in a Hatch challenge, that too is gone.
Chaffetz is 44. Hatch is 77. Assuming Hatch wins a record-setting seventh term in 2012, Chaffetz would only be 50 when Hatch’s seat comes around again.
Six years may seem like a long time.
But Chaffetz would only have to put up with two easy re-elections before in 2016 he starts a two-year campaign to win that Senate seat, whether Hatch runs again at 84 or not.
If he failed at a Hatch challenge in 2012, it would be a lot harder out of Congress to raise funds for 2018 and stay in the public’s eye.
Finally, polls show that while Hatch and Chaffetz are close in a GOP head-to-head primary match-up, polls also show that Tea Party influence is waning in Utah.
The far-right-wing movement is faltering.
Tea Partiers and illegal-immigration advocates are on the wrong side of the LDS Church’s immigration policies. A public and political reckoning is coming in 2012.
For all the love Chaffetz is getting from his right-wing today, if he and they are up against the leadership of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on immigration next year – with a likely show-down in the 2012 Legislature over HB116, the guest-worker program – Chaffetz’ popularity could plummet among regular Republicans.
Again, tough to get 60 percent of the convention just two months after that legislative immigration battle, tough to beat Hatch in a primary.
So, the photogenic Chaffetz takes the smart political decision – live to fight another day.
Hatch doesn’t seem to have a serious GOP challenger for 2012. But that could change.
Chaffetz just has to hope that Hatch isn’t beaten in convention or primary – and that the Senate door will be open, if only a bit, come 2018.