SALT LAKE CITY — Republican Rep. Jason Chaffetz says he is not running for re-election — or any other office — in 2018, but his plans remain unclear, including whether he'll step down before his term ends.
"I've always said, 'Get in, serve, and get out.' I think I'm being true to that," Chaffetz, 50, said Wednesday after posting a statement on Facebook about making "a personal decision to return to the private sector."
The five-term representative from the 3rd Congressional District declined to be specific about what he plans to do next, other than suggesting it would be related to communications, even after being asked about a possible position with the Fox News Channel, where he has been a frequent guest.
"Look, none of that can come to fruition until you actually go forward and make this announcement. Then you can pursue what those other opportunities may be," Chaffetz said. "This is the first step."
Last year, Chaffetz told KSL he intended to leave Congress in 2020, after reaching the maximum six years he could serve as chairman of the powerful House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.
His goal then was to return home to Utah after being in Washington since 2008, and "take a serious, serious look at running for governor" — a position where he said someone "can really make a difference."
But Wednesday, Chaffetz could only muster a "maybe" when asked whether he would run for governor when Gov. Gary Herbert's term ends in 2020. "I'm not trying to close the door or open the door to anything in the future."
He said when he talked about the governor's race last year, "there were an array of possibilities. That was but one of them." As for continuing as oversight chairman, Chaffetz said he has the support of House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wisc.
Chaffetz told KSL Newsradio's Doug Wright he could make a decision about another run for office in "a couple of years" after working in the private sector. "But here, early in 2017, I'm not willing to commit."
Still, Chaffetz said he was trying to be candid about not running in 2018, for either his 3rd District seat or the Senate seat now held by Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah. Hatch, first elected in 1976, has not yet said for sure whether he'll seek re-election.
"I expect to be involved and engaged in politics. I'm not walking totally away. I want to have a voice out there. I enjoy that part of it," Chaffetz said, whatever form that might take.
Chaffetz, who said he continues to sleep on a cot in his congressional office while he's in Washington, repeatedly said he made the decision not to run because he wants to spend more time with his family.
But he was facing a tough campaign for the 3rd District seat next year with Democrat Kathryn Allen, who already has raised more money than him, and Republicans eyeing the race — including Provo Mayor John Curtis.
Earlier this year, a raucous crowd turned out at a town hall meeting, many demanding that Chaffetz's committee investigate President Donald Trump's alleged ties to Russia and conflicts of interest.
Chaffetz had pushed hard against former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the Democratic presidential candidate, and had promised the committee had "years of material" against her had she won in November.
A recent UtahPolicy.com poll showed a 14-point drop in support since February 2016 for Chaffetz, down to 52 percent, despite easily winning a fifth term last year with more than 73 percent of the vote.
In his Facebook post, Chaffetz said he had "no ulterior motives" for his decision, calling himself healthy and confident that he "would continue to be re-elected by large margins."
He said by announcing his intentions now, he hopes to give prospective candidates time to ready their campaigns. Chaffetz said he has no favorite in the race but is certain the representative for the largely Utah County district would be a Republican.
"This is Utah, not Fantasyland," the congressman said.
If Chaffetz does step down before his term ends at the start of 2019, the governor would have to determine the process to select candidates and call a special election, state GOP Chairman James Evans said.
"There are going to be some big shoes to fill there with Jason," he said.
Chris Karpowitz, co-director of the BYU Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy, called the news surprising, "maybe even stunning." He also questioned why Chaffetz made the announcement just four months into a new term.
"I think the timing is very odd if there aren't other opportunities awaiting him," Karpowitz said. "It certainly undercuts his influence for the rest of his term. That's what makes me think he may be stepping down."
Karpowitz said Chaffetz has always been ambitious as well as media savvy, even briefly running for House speaker in 2015, but has struggled as the GOP's congressional chief watchdog now that a Republican is in the White House.
Chaffetz was a campaign surrogate for Mitt Romney's presidential run in 2012, and attracted national attention for briefly withdrawing his support for Trump last fall after a tape surfaced of Trump discussing making sexual advances on women.
"Jason Chaffetz's time in office will be defined by his chairmanship of the oversight committee and his media appearances. He has been an eager voice for Republican causes and Republican interests," Karpowitz said.
Joining Fox News would be a good opportunity for Chaffetz to stay in the limelight, he said. "He has been interested in national partisan politics. And a spot on Fox News allows him to play that role and comment on all sorts of things, and be seen."
Jason Perry, head of the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics, said Chaffetz should be taken at his word when he talks about the toll his being in Congress has taken on his family.
Perry also said, however, that if Chaffetz is interested in running for governor, "he needs to get the Washington, D.C., off him. He will not want to run as someone who is part of the D.C. establishment."
While announcing now that he is done with Congress does limit his power in Washington, Perry said Chaffetz, whose political career included serving as former Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr.'s chief of staff, "doesn't do things without a plan."
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