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On A Bus With Utah Lawmakers, Chaffetz News Sends Shock Waves

Julia Ritchey, KUER
Utah state lawmakers mill outside a gas station in Nephi. Many said they were stunned by the news that Jason Chaffetz would not run for re-election

News of Representative Jason Chaffetz’s decision not to run for re-election on Wednesday stunned Utah’s political establishment – including several would-be contenders for his seat.

Many of Utah’s state lawmakers were on a bus early Wednesday on a two-day legislative visit to rural Utah when the news broke that Chaffetz wasn’t going to run for a sixth term in 2018.

That included people like Republican House Speaker Greg Hughes who expressed what became a similar refrain among lawmakers.

“I am surprised," he said. "That Oversight  is an incredibly important committee in Congress, so I was frankly surprised by his announcement today. But public service takes its toll, and there is a price we all pay.”

For most of the day, between trips to a power plant and solar farms, lawmakers were abuzz about Chaffetz’s motivations for dropping out and possible contenders for his seat.

Hughes said while he doubts Washington is a good fit for him, he wouldn’t rule it completely out.

“Wasn’t a firm no, but you know this is brand new news, you gotta digest it,” he said. “You never want to eliminate all possibilities.”

Another top contender could be Republican Rep. Deidre Henderson of Spanish Fork, who was also on the trip. She said she’s talked with people for a long time about the possibility of running for Congress.

“I just didn’t ever think I would need to make that sort of a decision this soon, so that is surprising," she said.  "So it’s definitely something that I’ve thought about, and is something I’ll seriously consider with my family.”

Senator Todd Weiler believes some of the recent negative press might have taken a toll on Chaffetz, though he thinks the decision was more of a political calculation.

“I think this is probably driven by the fact that one of his Democratic opponents [Kathryn Allen] just raised a lot of money, and I think maybe part of the timing of his announcement is to take of some thunder away from the fundraising," he said. 

Weiler said without Chaffetz running, it would open up the field to some promising Republican candidates and make it harder for Democrats to raise money.  

“It shifted the political landscape in Utah in a very fundamental way,” said Justin Harding, Chaffetz’s former chief of staff and a close confidante. He said he got a call from Chaffetz Tuesday night about his plans.

“He is a very instinctive and deliberate person,” said Harding. “I believe he’s given this a fair amount of consideration. He wouldn’t be doing it unless he felt it was the right thing to do.”

Both Harding and Weiler say Chaffetz has a bright political future in Utah if he chooses to – including a possible gubernatorial run in 2020, which Chaffetz said he’s open to.  

Julia joined KUER in 2016 after a year reporting at the NPR member station in Reno, Nev. During her stint, she covered battleground politics, school overcrowding, and any story that would take her to the crystal blue shores of Lake Tahoe. Her work earned her two regional Edward R. Murrow awards. Originally from the mountains of Western North Carolina, Julia graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill in 2008 with a degree in journalism. She’s worked as both a print and radio reporter in several states and several countries — from the 2008 Beijing Olympics to Dakar, Senegal. Her curiosity about the American West led her to take a spontaneous, one-way road trip to the Great Basin, where she intends to continue preaching the gospel of community journalism, public radio and podcasting. In her spare time, you’ll find her hanging with her beagle Bodhi, taking pictures of her food and watching Patrick Swayze movies.
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