SALT LAKE CITY — Rep. Jason Chaffetz is facing a primary election challenge in his bid for a fifth term in Congress from fellow Republican Chia-Chi Teng, a BYU professor and former Microsoft software engineer.
Chaffetz, 49, chairman of the powerful House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said he is running on his record, especially the committee's role in taking on President Barack Obama's administration.
Teng, 53, said it's time for a new representative in the 3rd District because Chaffetz tied himself too closely to the House Republican leadership to be named a committee chairman, straying from the conservatism of his constituents.
Delegates to the state GOP convention in April backed Chaffetz, who has held the seat since 2008, giving him more than 64 percent of the vote compared to less than 36 percent for Teng.
That would have ended Teng's candidacy had he not also gathered voter signatures to ensure a place on the June 28 primary ballot under a controversial new election law.
Now it will be up to GOP primary voters to decide who advances to the November general election to face Democrat Stephen P. Tryon to represent a district that extends from Salt Lake and Utah counties to the southeastern corner of the state.
So far, there's no sign Chaffetz is in danger of losing the seat he first won in 2008, after defeating then-Rep. Chris Cannon in a divisive party primary, said Chris Karpowitz, co-director of BYU's Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy.
"I certainly haven't seen evidence to this point that Chaffetz is in any serious trouble. But I would say I think Teng’s challenge has probably been more pesky than Chaffetz might have anticipated," Karpowitz said.
Chaffetz said he's campaigning hard and "wouldn't trade places with anybody."
"Washington, D.C., is a mess, and I'm in the middle of the fight. I love being in the fight," he said. "There are a lot of big, major, weighty issues, and the foundation I've laid to now be chairman of the oversight committee puts me in a unique position to fight for Utah."
He said the state benefits from his battles over what led to the deadly attack on a U.S. post in Benghazi, Libya, and well as with the Internal Revenue Service, the Environmental Protection Agency and a long list of other government entities.
"We're the primary committee to be the check and balance on the administration, Chaffetz said. "The reason the public knows about those scandals is in large part because of our committee."
Earlier this week, his committee made headlines by voting to censure IRS Commissioner John Koskinen over what Republicans said was his obstruction of the investigation into whether conservative groups were targeted by the agency.
Teng said Chaffetz has spent too much time in Washington trying to drive officials like Koskinen out of office, something he said helps Congress' GOP leadership but not the 3rd District.
The committee's website includes a list of 18 officials forced out of their government posts by the committee for "misconduct, incompetence and poor performance," and notes Koskinen's fate is to be determined.
"What changes for the people of Utah?" Teng asked of the impact of the list. "He's using that to build a brand, to put on a good show. At the end of the day, there's no difference."
Chaffetz has never been shy about seeking attention, Karpowitz said, starting with getting national news coverage as a freshman for sleeping on a cot in his congressional office to save money.
Last year, Chaffetz made a brief run for House speaker, withdrawing after Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., agreed to take the position. He has said he plans to leave Congress in 2020 and is already considering a run then for Utah governor.
The former Brigham Young University football kicker who was a convert to both the LDS Church and the Republican Party, was first the campaign manager and later the chief of staff for Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr.
He often tells the story of campaigning as a student in 1988 for a Democratic presidential candidate, Michael Dukakis. Chaffetz's father had been married to the woman who later became Dukakis' wife, Kitty.
Some voters, Karpowitz said, "certainly do care about the more visible role that he plays. But others might worry he’s in front of the cameras a little too much. I don’t see this right now hurting him in some big way."
Teng said he has suffered at the hands of some in the GOP establishment because he chose to gather voter signatures and then failed to meet the party's 40 percent state convention vote threshold.
The option to gather voter signatures, being challenged in court by the Utah Republican Party, is the result of a compromise with organizers of the Count My Vote initiative to replace the state's caucus and convention system with a direct primary.
"I just don't think this is a political environment that really encourages challengers to come out. I think the party has a vested interest to protect the status quo," the first-time challenger said. "The process stinks."
The native of Taiwan, who joined the LDS Church after missionaries came to his family's door as a child, came to the United States in 1989 when a friend's software company that he was working for was acquired by Microsoft.
During his nearly 17 years at the tech giant, Teng earned master's and doctorate degrees in electrical engineering at the University of Washington. He became a U.S. citizen in 1998 and has been an information technology professor at BYU since 2008.
Even though he's largely picking up the cost of his campaign, he declined to be specific about his personal wealth. "I would describe myself as a successful entrepreneur engineer and that's it. I was blessed with opportunity," Teng said.
His campaign has also raised issues about Chaffetz's conduct in office. In April, Teng filed a request with the Federal Election Commission for an investigation into what he called Chaffetz's "poor disclosure and misappropriation" of campaign funds.
Another claim by Teng is that Chaffetz is misusing the oversight committee's website, citing a page titled "Getting Results" about the committee's actions and Chaffetz's campaign materials referring to "Delivering Results."
Chaffetz has dismissed the allegations. His attorney, Matthew Sanderson, pointed out numerous issues with the FEC request such as mistaking a $3,200 advance deposit for a fundraising event at a Deer Valley hotel for a Chaffetz family holiday.
"I think it's unfortunate he's taken such a negative, inaccurate tone instead of proactively stating what he would do," Chaffetz said. "That's his choice. It happens to be inaccurate and wrong. I think people understand that."
The incumbent said he stands by a record built on "fiscal discipline, limited government, accountability and a strong national defense. I feel like if you get those four right, the country will be going in the right direction."