In a big boost to Utah Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, two-term congressman and “tea party” favorite Jason Chaffetz backed away Monday from a threatened intraparty challenge of the venerable GOP lawmaker.
Chaffetz, 44, announced his surprise decision at an afternoon news conference in Salt Lake City, saying a run for Senate would result in “a multimillion-dollar bloodbath.”
“I don’t think that’s necessarily in my best interests,” Chaffetz said. “I don’t think it’s in the best interest of our party, the nation or our state.”
Up until Monday, Chaffetz seemed prepared to take on Hatch, who was first elected in 1976 and has served longer than any senator in Utah history. He is bidding next year for a seventh term.
The two Republicans exchanged repeated barbs over the last few months, as Chaffetz stepped up his travels around the state, winning applause for his attacks on the 77-year-old senator. Chaffetz also received encouragement from conservative groups outside Utah, including the Club for Growth and FreedomWorks; both played an important role in last year’s ouster of GOP Sen. Bob Bennett of Utah.
A conservative by just about any measure, Bennett ran afoul of many tea party acolytes and grass-roots Republicans by supporting the 2008 Wall Street bailout -- which he deemed necessary to save the country from economic collapse -- and by working on bipartisan healthcare legislation with Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon. Bennett was replaced by Republican Mike Lee, who ran under the tea party banner.
Hatch has a similar history of working across the aisle, most famously with the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts. But unlike Bennett, who was slow responding to the challenge he faced, Hatch has been actively positioning himself for reelection.
He lured David Hansen, a former aide and one of Utah’s savviest political strategists, away from his job as GOP chairman to manage his reelection bid. Perhaps more significantly, Hatch moved notably rightward in recent months. He led the fight in the Senate for a balanced budget amendment, co-sponsored legislation to repeal the nation’s new healthcare law and opposed last spring’s budget compromise that averted a government shutdown.
Hatch garnered the endorsement of several prominent conservatives, including TV’s Sean Hannity and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin—which he was quick to highlight -- and worked to court both tea party loyalists and delegates to next year’s state GOP convention. (Candidates are nominated in Utah by party activists.)
Chaffetz, who won his congressional seat after beating a Republican incumbent in 2008, said he would seek reelection to a third House term next year. He said GOP leaders, including House Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio, urged him to stay put.
“I could spend the next 15 months campaigning to do Sen. Hatch’s job, or I could spend those 15 months doing the job I was elected to do,” Chaffetz said.
Utah is such a solidly Republican state that winning the GOP Senate nomination is tantamount to election.