Chaffetz is out… but why?

Utah Republican Rep. Jason Chaffetz, who’s made a name for himself as the no-nonsense chair of the House Oversight Committee, announced Wednesday that he will not seek re-election in 2018. The lawmaker says his decision is a personal one— but it sure smells political.

In a message to constituents via Facebook, the lawmaker announced:

After long consultation with my family and prayerful consideration, I have decided I will not be a candidate for any office in 2018.

Since late 2003 I have been fully engaged with politics as a campaign manager, a chief of staff, a candidate and as a Member of Congress. I have long advocated public service should be for a limited time and not a lifetime or full career. Many of you have heard me advocate, “Get in, serve, and get out.” After more than 1,500 nights away from my home, it is time. I may run again for public office, but not in 2018.

If the lawmaker’s decision to step down is indeed based on his desire to set an example to encourage other lawmakers to “get in…get out,” it’s a noble one.

But there are other factors worth examining in considering the lawmaker’s decision to exit congressional life this year.

Chaffetz, first elected to represent Utah’s 3rd congressional district in 2003, almost certainly would have had no problem winning reelection among an electorate that hasn’t failed to send a Republican to Washington in 20 years.

That’s despite a well-funded threat from Kathryn Allen, the candidate emerging as the most likely Democratic nominee to vie for the seat in the upcoming election.

In fact, at the time of the incumbent’s announcement, Allen’s campaign had raised about $400,000 more than the Republican.

Her well-funded campaign and the competitive edge that comes with being an incumbent makes Chaffetz’s decision to step aside at the present all the more bemusing.  Why take even the slightest chance that a Democrat could win the seat against a GOP unknown, when Chaffetz’s victory would be all but promised?

The lawmaker, in his statement, said that’s why he’s announcing his decision to step aside now: “I hope to give prospective candidates time to lay the groundwork for a successful run. I have no doubt the 3rd Congressional District will be represented by a Republican. I trust you to find the best person to serve.”

Also, Chaffetz told supporters that there’s no reason whatsoever to discuss the possibility that he may have hidden reasons for wanting to relieve himself of the Washington spotlight as soon as possible.

From his statement:

[L]et me be clear that I have no ulterior motives. I am healthy. I am confident I would continue to be re-elected by large margins. I have the full support of Speaker Ryan to continue as Chairman of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee. That said, I have made a personal decision to return to the private sector.

Again, fair enough. But if you had to say it…

As much as Trump supporters don’t want to hear it, Chaffetz’s decision could be a signal that he expects the current administration to create the sort of problems that would inevitably have to be investigated by say… the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

Chaffetz is only in his second term as chairman of that powerful entity, meaning that reelection would likely have seen him holding the Oversight gavel until 2020.

Because of the GOP’s 11th commandment, “thou shalt not speak ill of any Republican,” that would mean a serious no-win situation for the lawmaker.

Either he would get skewered by the huge group of Republicans who’ve bought into the Trump cult of personality with full willingness to wear blinders as they wish America great again, or he would take heat from others who recognized executive malfeasance and wondered why the bulldog Oversight chair lost his fight.

Being accused of partisan-driven oversight would be a surefire way to cheapen any meaningful work Chaffetz did in seeking truth from the Obama administration. It would also get him labeled a  hack and, potentially, another GOP Trump sycophant.

That’s not something Chaffetz, who first declined to endorse the current president during the 2016 election, can allow to happen. In part, that’s because the Oversight Committee has done some outstanding work under his leadership, work that could still potentially bring down some of the biggest political con artists of the last half century. But more importantly for Chaffetz, is that his departure from Congress won’t likely mark the end of his political life.

As The Atlantic’s McKay Coppins noted in a lengthy profile on Chaffetz, “The Prince of Oversight”:

Chaffetz is openly considering a bid for the Utah governorship in 2020—“Definitely maybe,” he joked when the subject came up, grinning at his own kabuki coyness—and when I asked him what he thinks Utah voters expect from him as Oversight chairman in the meantime, he said they wanted him to be an “honest broker.” But, he added, “Remember, the federal government is 2-plus million people. We can’t investigate everything all the time.”

And that’s the piece of the puzzle that probably matters the most here.

If there’s any place in the nation populated by people who are both very conservative and noticeably not thrilled by President Trump, it is Utah.

Largely unknown independent presidential candidate Evan McMullin, a Utahan, was able to garner 21 percent of the state’s 2016 presidential votes despite having virtually no chance of winning the election. McMullin’s name has surfaced as a likely contender for Chaffetz’s House seat, which given his calls for conservatives to “stop caving to Trump on liberty” would make him worthy of support.

For Chaffetz, and his gubernatorial ambitions, the safest place to be right now is the private sector. After leaving office, he’ll be free to criticize the president without having to tread carefully in order to avoid finding himself subpoenaing members of the current GOP administration with the same vigor he did Obama officials. And maybe he knows something we don’t. The lawmaker’s current political calculus certainly suggests that he expects Trump’s unpredictable administration to become a major powder keg before 2020. Stay tuned.

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