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Rep. Jason Chaffetz eyeing a new title — governor

Rep. Jason Chaffetz is eyeing a new title — governor. But that can wait until 2020.
Rep. Jason Chaffetz is eyeing a new title — governor. But that can wait until 2020.
Cliff Owen, File, Associated Press

WASHINGTON — Rep. Jason Chaffetz is eyeing a new title — governor.

"I'm not going to be here forever. I would take a serious, serious look at running for governor," the Utah Republican told the Deseret News. "I want to go as hard and fast as I can in the House and then go home."

But not until 2020. That's when Chaffetz will have reached the maximum six years he can serve as chairman of the powerful House Oversight and Government Reform Committee under congressional rules.

Given the sway Chaffetz has in Washington and his national profile, his interest in the governor's race is unexpected, Brigham Young University political science professor Chris Karpowitz said.

"He's got that office for as long as he wants," Karpowitz said of Chaffetz's 3rd District House seat. "So it is somewhat surprising that he would want to leave that position and come back to Utah."

Last year, Chaffetz jumped into the race for House speaker, suggesting to many he saw a future in congressional leadership. He hasn't ruled that out "if there's another opportunity," but said his real goal is to return to Utah.

"I love Utah. That's where I want to be. This doesn't last forever. I get to meet and interact with a lot of neat people and do amazing things, but that's what the job does. It's not me," Chaffetz said.

First elected in 2008, he said he's no longer interested in running for the Senate after considering bids to unseat then-Sen. Bob Bennett in 2010 and, two years later, Sen. Orrin Hatch.

"The more I'm here, the more I'm convinced I don't want to be in the United States Senate," Chaffetz said. "I've already invested years in the House and it's essentially the same job, just more people over here and more competition."

Karpowitz, co-director of BYU's Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy, said Chaffetz's short-lived run for House speaker may have influenced his decision to return to Utah.

Chaffetz's bid for the top leadership position in the House was described as "quixotic" and parodied on Saturday Night Live. He stepped aside when Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wisc., agreed to run.

"In the aftermath of that, with the very popular Paul Ryan taking the leadership role, perhaps he does not see an opportunity for himself," Karpowitz said. "They may be there for a while."

The governor's office, however, may well be up for grabs in 2020.

Gov. Gary Herbert, who assumed office in 2009 when then-Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. resigned to become U.S. ambassador to China, has been elected twice and is running again this year.

Herbert, facing a challenge by a fellow Republican, chairman Jonathan Johnson, has not announced this would be his final term but he is not expected to seek re-election in 2020.

Chaffetz, who served as Huntsman's chief of staff, said he's prepared to run the state.

"I get it. I know what it takes. You can really make a difference," he said, especially given his experience in Congress. "Having been critical of the largest bureaucracy on the face of the planet, there's a way to do this, there's a right way to do this."

Kirk Jowers, who has been mentioned as a GOP candidate for various offices including governor, said Chaffetz would enter the 2020 governor's race as the favorite.

"Chaffetz right now is probably the single most formidable political candidate in the state," Jowers, the former head of the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics, said.

Not only does Chaffetz have "a very loyal following" among conservative Republicans, he has also developed a strong allegiance with mainstream members of the state's dominant party, Jowers said.

Plus, he said, Chaffetz is "probably the best communicating we have of our public officials and has a platform to remain very prominent in everyone's eyes. So whatever he puts his mind to, he probably begins as the favorite."

There are plenty of other potential candidates for governor in 2020, including Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox; former Rep. Jim Matheson, a Democrat; and Josh Romney, the son of former GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney.

Chaffetz's early interest in the race may reshape the field.

"The fact that Rep. Chaffetz is willing to put that out there as a possibility does two things," Jowers said. "it sticks his head out of the bunker so people can start taking shots. But it also allows him to consolidate support."

Jowers said he's "a little torn" about Chaffetz' interest in running for governor because he "has really developed a great reputation and network back in Washington, D.C. and he could be an incredibly effective senator."

Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, is up for re-election this year and many of his potential Republican opponents have signed on to support him. Chaffetz said he never considered a run against Lee.

Hatch, now the most senior Republican in the Senate, promised this would be his final term when he last ran for re-election but has been hinting at seeking an eighth term in 2018.

Chaffetz said he isn't interested in starting over as "a rank and file" senator.

"If I wanted to be here in D.C. forever, that would be the path," he said. "You can go park yourself over there for a couple decades."

For now, Chaffetz said he wants to focus on what he can accomplish as chairman rather than his political plans because he feels "we are, from our perch, making a difference. So I'm not getting ahead of myself. That's like way down the road."

Jowers said he doesn't believe Chaffetz sees himself running for president someday.

"He's not delusional enough to think he should be one of the Republican presidential candidates in 2024," Jowers said. "I think Utah governor would be the capstone of his career, not another stepping stone."

But Jowers said Chaffetz may miss the national attention he's received as a member of Congress. He's made frequent appearances on FoxNews and other outlets, as well as attracting coverage as a committee chairman.

Chaffetz, though, doesn't sound like he believes he'd be giving that up as governor.

Something he'd like to do, he said, is make a guest appearance on "Saturday Night Live." Told governors typically aren't invited on the comedy program, he paused for just a moment before answering, "Yet."

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