By Jim EllisApril 24, 2017 — House Oversight & Government Reform Committee chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-UT-3) made a great deal of news over the past week. He surprisingly announced that he would not seek re-election in 2018; Chaffetz said he’s been away from his family in Utah too long during his four-plus terms in Congress, and desires to return to the private sector, yet he left the door wide open about running for governor in 2020.
Then, Rep. Chaffetz indicated that he was considering resigning before the term ends. In fact, late last week, rumors were circulating through media outlets that the congressman was going to leave the House as early as Friday.
Then Rep. Chaffetz somewhat clarified the situation saying that while he would not likely serve the remaining 20 months of the current term, he wouldn’t be leaving anytime soon and certainly not within days. The representative told the Salt Lake City Tribune that, “if I do it, it’s going to be months from now.” Chaffetz also disclosed that he is in discussions with an unidentified company about a private-sector position.
It appears that if Chaffetz resigns well before the 2018 election, internal controversy will arise in Utah about how to replace him. The last time one of the state’s congressional seats was open mid-term dates back all the way to 1929 when a member suddenly died.
Under Utah election law, the only statute pertaining to filling a vacant federal seat merely directs the governor to issue a proclamation calling for a special election. In his monthly news conference, Gov. Gary Herbert (R) downplayed the situation, saying that the normal procedure would simply take effect, and he would rely upon the state attorney general and his legal advisors to outline the special election logistics.
The reason consternation and confusion exists over the succession system relates to Utah’s complex nomination system. In the regular cycle, voters gather in precincts to nominate and elect delegates to the state nominating convention. Once the body assembles, candidates must obtain at least 40 percent of the delegates’ support to advance to a primary. If a contender breaks the 60 percent threshold at the convention, the nomination is clinched. The state convention serves the purpose of winnowing the number of viable candidates so that normally only two individuals advance to a primary.
In a special election, however, this system would become very cumbersome and time consuming, involving so many people and steps to fill just one office. During the just-concluded legislative session, members attempted to add clarity to the election law because it appeared that for a time 2nd District Rep. Chris Stewart (R-Farmington/ Salt Lake City) might be appointed secretary of the Air Force. When the appointment did not materialize, the special election bill sponsors let the measure drop. With the legislature now adjourned, any new election law would require Gov. Herbert to call the members back into session, something he is not prone to do.
The nominating process is critical in this situation because the 3rd District seat is so heavily Republican. In fact, Hillary Clinton did not even place second here, falling behind not only President Trump, but Independent Evan McMullin, as well. Therefore, many legislators are expressing concern that failure to clarify the special election process could lead to drawn out lawsuits over voter disenfranchisement.
While the Chaffetz retirement announcement came as a surprise, it appears tangled unintended consequences will transpire should he depart without serving the remainder of the current term.