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Chaffetz Resignation Sparks Conflict, Compressed Campaigns in Utah

Governor and state legislature disagree on special election timeline

Utah Rep. Jason Chaffetz says he will resign on June 30. (Al Drago/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
Utah Rep. Jason Chaffetz says he will resign on June 30. (Al Drago/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

In any other year, Rep. Jason Chaffetz’s decision to resign would have sparked a crowded Republican primary. But as one Utah GOP operative put it, this year is not like any other year. 

Consultant Chuck Warren sat down with a state lawmaker Friday morning to talk about a possible run for Congress. The lawmaker pointed to a picture of his family and his home and said, “Why would I give that up to go up there and pound my head against a wall?”

Warren said gridlock in Congress, the tense political environment and the unrelenting news cycle have some of the typical contenders passing on the congressional race.

“This is the first time I’ve seen, and I’ve seen this a lot where you have an open solid red congressional seats, … that you don’t have everyone who thought about running for Congress since college throwing their that into ring,” he said.

After announcing in April that he would not seek re-election, Chaffetz signaled he might leave Congress before the end of his term next year. Last week, he followed through, announcing he would resign effective June 30.

His departure has set off a special election  in a state that has not experienced a House vacancy since 1929. And while the Utah legislature and governor spar over a special election date, Republican candidates are already jumping into the race to succeed him, before the window closes on one of Utah’s four House seats. 

“If you’re going to run, you’re going to run. It doesn’t matter when they pick the date,” Warren said, noting that the seat may not open up again for several years. “This is your one shot.”

Crowded field?

State lawmakers and local officials are among the potential candidates eyeing runs in the expansive district. GOP consultants say there are two to watch in particular: state Sen. Deidre Henderson, Chaffetz’s former campaign manager, and Provo Mayor John Curtis.

“I think they’re probably going to suck a lot of wind out of the sails of everybody else,” said strategist Brian Chapman, who ran Curtis’ mayoral campaign in 2008.

Chapman said both candidates enjoy name recognition in the most populous part of the district. Provo is the district’s largest city, and Henderson represents Spanish Fork, a much smaller city in the district. 

Henderson announced Friday morning that she would run for her former boss’ seat. She said in an interview she has seen how federal government overreach can impede development at the local level, and wants to change that.

She had been weighing a run since Chaffetz said he would not run for re-election. His announcement that he is leaving sooner than expected has kick-started the primary campaigns that will culminate in the special election.

“Anyone who hasn’t started organizing is going to be behind the eight ball,” Henderson said.

The Salt Lake Tribune highlighted eight candidates, including Henderson and Curtis, who could run for the GOP nomination.  

Former presidential candidate Evan McMullin has been floated as a possible contender, but some strategists say he would not fare well against candidates who have more legislative and executive experience in the district.

Utah Valley University president Matt Holland has also been suggested as a candidate. Holland declined to rule out a run in a recent interview but said he was focused on the university.

Holland received the most support of potential candidates in a poll conducted earlier this month. September Group, LLC surveyed 838 GOP primary voters in the 3rd District, and nearly 17 percent said they would vote for Holland. Five percent voiced support for Curtis, while just over 1 percent said they would vote for Henderson. Nearly 11 percent supported McMullin.

Democratic candidate Kathryn Allen has already raised more than $500,000, though she faces an uphill battle in the conservative district. Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates the 3rd District race as Solid Republican

Clashes in Salt Lake City

The race in the 3rd District is also not going to be an average special election. Utah is one of the few states in the country without specific guidelines about what happens in the event of a congressional vacancy. So, Chaffetz’s resignation has set off a showdown between the GOP-controlled legislature and Republican Gov. Gary Herbert.

Herbert contends he has the power to set the special election date, while lawmakers wanted the governor to call a special session to decide the matter legislatively. GOP leaders also threatened to sue him over the issue.

On Friday, Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox announced that the primary election would be set for Aug. 15, with the general election on Nov. 7. That would coincide with municipal elections, which Cox argued would save the state money. 

“We understand those threats of litigation are out there, yet our job is to run an election,” Cox said. “We’re not concerning ourselves with that.”

But despite the uncertainty over the election date, strategists expect candidates to jump in.

“We’re going to have to prepare for anything,” said Dave Hansen, a consultant for Henderson and a former campaign manager for GOP Sen. Orrin G. Hatch.

Warren, the GOP consultant, said the uncertain timing could mean candidates would fundraise but hold off on spending money until the date is set. 

In the meantime, the legislature and the governor are arguing over the election process. Utah recently implemented a two-track path to the ballot: they can either gather signatures or be selected by their party’s delegates at a convention, or they can use both options.

“The fight now on this issue is whether the governor would allow candidates to go through both processes, but it would take a longer period of time and the seat would be vacant for a period of time,” veteran GOP strategist Lavarr Webb said.

Legislators have discussed allowing just the delegates to choose the party’s nominee, since that would be faster than a primary process. But others have said there should be a primary election to choose the nominee, so all voters can weigh in on the candidates.

Some consultants also say a convention could churn out a more hard-line conservative nominee, while others point out that delegates have also supported more moderate candidates in the past.

Though both branches of state government are holding their ground, Cox, the lieutenant governor, acknowledged that Chaffetz’s surprise announcement has put them all in an unwelcome position.

“I think both the legislative leadership and governor wish we weren’t doing this,” Cox said.

Eric Garcia contributed to this report.

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