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Young Man in a Hurry, Chaffetz Now Positioned for a Longer Game

Chaffetz has his eye on a promotion. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Chaffetz has his eye on a promotion. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Jason Chaffetz will bring a chameleon political background and unremitting ambition into Thursday’s caucus of Republicans with his eyes on the prize — just not this time.

The fourth-term congressman from central Utah is not only looking three weeks ahead. He’s also thinking about 13 months from now, and also two years after that.

The seemingly sudden and totally unorthodox Chaffetz campaign for speaker of the House looks designed for failure, but only in the nearest term. Out of the box six days before the initial balloting, he’s created no whip operation behind his candidacy and hasn’t even made his pitch over the phone to all 245 other members of the electorate.

Instead, he’s tacitly conceding that Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California has the support locked down to become the anointed Republican candidate. “I’m probably going to lose, but I’m OK with that,” Chaffetz said Tuesday.

That’s because the first contest in which Chaffetz is really running comes on Oct. 29 — on the assumption at least 30 Republicans will refuse to vote for their nominee. Denying McCarthy the requisite majority of all the membership (Democrats included) would throw the House into limbo until a compromise candidate emerges who secures at least 218 (presumably all Republican) votes.

And if Chaffetz turns out not to be that guy? Among those who have watched since his arrival at the Capitol nearly seven years ago, the universal assumption is that he will not in any way fade away.

He’ll remain chairman of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee. So long as a Democrat occupies the White House, that’s one of the premier positions in Congress for a Republican hoping to raise his national profile and do yeoman’s work for the cause of partisan confrontation. (Since taking the gavel in January, the telegenic and zealous-looking 48-year-old has investigated taxpayer funding of Planned Parenthood, flaws at the Secret Service, the government’s mistaken releases of the personal data of 22 million people, and the targeting of conservative groups for special IRS scrutiny.)

So if there’s a floor deadlock and he positions himself as a reasoned and viable “fresh start” alternative — but nonetheless finishes as a runner-up — he could spend the coming year doing much of the intraparty spade work he’s eschewed this time in preparation for another bid for speaker after the 2016 election.

The expectation he could make a stronger run the second time starts with the reasonable assumption that neither McCarthy (or some as-yet unknown dark horse victor) will be more successful than Speaker John A. Boehner at corralling the tea partyers and Wall Streeters, young Turks and Old Bulls, appropriators and libertarians, “Hell no!” choristers and institutionalists into something close to a unified whole.

If only the hardest of the hard-line conservatives need apply, then Chaffetz is probably not in the running. He’s sided with President Barack Obama six times this year, or 9 percent of the time, which is more frequently than 75 others in the GOP conference. And, having gone against the grain on 3 percent of the votes since January that have broken mainly on party lines, he’s not even among the top hundred House GOP party loyalists.

If a change agent is what his colleagues want, on the other hand, Chaffetz has a backstory that more than fits the bill — though perhaps in ways that may leave some on the far right scratching their heads.

He was born Jewish but converted to Mormonism at Brigham Young University, where he also shifted his athletic focus from soccer to football (and became a renowned place kicker).

More important than those biographical curiosities, he also identified in his youth as a liberal Democrat — going so far as to be Utah co-chairman of the Michael Dukakis presidential campaign in 1988, when he was a college senior. (One rationale was familial: His dad’s first wife was Kitty Dickson, and after their divorce she married the Massachusetts governor; the congressman remains close to his half-brother from that earlier marriage.)

After switching to the GOP in 1990 — inspired, he says, by meeting Ronald Reagan — he worked more than a decade for Nu Skin Enterprises, mostly as a spokesman, and later formed a corporate communications and marketing firm with another brother.

But Chaffetz became a political professional a dozen years ago — right after his application to join the Secret Service was turned down, as the world has learned in recent days thanks to the exposure of a ham-handed agency leak.

Since then, he’s looked for advancement by aligning himself with icons of the establishment much more often than the outsiders.

His most consequential insurgent move, before launching the challenge to his longtime ally McCarthy, was how he got to Congress: He ran to the right of one of the most conservative House members, Chris Cannon, and defeated him for the 2008 Republican nomination.

But before that, he was spokesman and then campaign manager for Jon Huntsman’s Utah gubernatorial campaign, and when Huntsman won in 2004 he named Chaffetz chief of staff. In 2012, the congressman threw himself into Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign, performing highly visible work as a surrogate and spin doctor and letting it be known he was ready to leave Congress to become White House chief of staff. When that was no longer a possibility, he started playing the inside game to chair either the Oversight and Government Reform or Budget committees, while expressing eventual interest in becoming governor or senator.

He even sought to help Boehner enforce party discipline this year, moving early in his chairmanship to take a subcommittee gavel away from rebellious GOP Rep. Mark Meadows of North Carolina. The punishment ended up getting abandoned in the face of an even bigger conservative uprising.

The incident, he told reporters Monday, was an “important lesson to me that you’re not going to break knuckles to build unity.”

And that’s a lesson he is looking to apply over the long haul. Starting to run for the top job now, he said, goes way beyond reaping a bit more limelight: “I’ve got plenty of ego, but I also get plenty of publicity. I don’t need any more.”

Matt Fuller contributed to this report.

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