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Mike Terry, Deseret News
Jason Chaffetz

SALT LAKE CITY — Will he or won't he?

As rumors persist that Rep. Jason Chaffetz is going to challenge Sen. Orrin Hatch in 2012 for Hatch's seat in the U.S. Senate — the same sort of innuendo that's been popping up on prominent national websites such as Politico.com and The Hill throughout 2010 — Chaffetz is doing nothing to discourage the speculation.

"It's a determination that my family and I will make in about a year's time," Chaffetz said Thursday. "I'm going to focus on my work in the House and do the very best job I can."

Hatch's bid for re-election to the U.S. Senate stands to be the most momentous of a passel of potentially interesting races that could make the 2012 elections among the most interesting in recent Utah history.

The struggle for Hatch's seat would be chart-topper anywhere because it will both determine whether Hatch receives a seventh six-year term and could potentially pit a popular and relatively new-to-the-game politician against the ultimate Washington insider. Likely looking to avoid the fight of his political life, Utah's senior senator has subtly discouraged Chaffetz from running during the past several months. In a recent interview with radio station KCPW, Hatch alleged that the Congressman from Utah's Third District promised him in 2009 that Chaffetz would not challenge Hatch's candidacy in 2012.

"Jason has been with me right in my office and said that he's not going to run against me," Hatch told KCPW. "(He) made it very, very clear."

Chaffetz subsequently, unequivocally denied ever making such a promise.

Last week during an interview with the Deseret News, Hatch referred to the 43-year-old Chaffetz as "a very nice young man" who he didn't view as a threat. Hatch added, "I hope that he'll concentrate on doing the job there (in the House)."

As these early skirmishes indicate, Chaffetz vs. Hatch has all the makings of a big-time political slugfest featuring two hard-hitting heavyweights standing toe-to-toe and trading blows. However, this could also be a match-up that never comes to fruition.

"I think a lot of that just depends on this next session of Congress," mused Kelly Patterson, BYU political science professor and director of the Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy. "I think a lot depends on what kind of influence (Chaffetz) has in the House in the upcoming session and what kind of difference he thinks he can make if he decides to switch offices."

While Chaffetz mulls his options, Hatch will be working as the ranking Republican of the powerful Senate Finance Committee and trying to enhance his appeal to conservatives like Utah Tea Party founder David Kirkham.

"This," Kirkham explains, "is what we'll be looking for from Hatch: Are you going to be putting forth laws that encourage employers to employ and workers to work? Because that's what America needs."

The May 2012 Republican Convention is just 18 months away. But likely intrigue surrounding GOP jousting for Hatch's seat, the governor's office and the U.S. House seat held by Democrat Jim Matheson will be prefaced this winter by an equally compelling story line. The 2011 Utah Legislature convenes in 65 days and will undertake its decennial duty of revisiting federal congressional district boundaries. After 30 years of sending a three-person contingent to the U.S. House of Representatives, the Beehive State will gain a fourth congressional seat in time for the 2012 election.

As a result, Matheson, the most prominent Democrat in the state, could easily be looking at another decade in the House if redistricting preserves intact the Second District's base of Salt Lake County Democrats. A redistricting proposal dividing Salt Lake County up into different districts could force Matheson to abandon his House seat and instead launch bids to replace Gov. Gary Herbert or to beat Hatch, Chaffetz or whichever Republican win the GOP nomination for the senate seat.

On the far right, the Utah Tea Party that played such an integral role in replacing Sen. Bob Bennett with Mike Lee continues cultivating its influence.

The filing deadline to enter the Senate race is March 16, 2012, with the 2012 Utah Republican Convention convening approximately two months thereafter. Because of the political connections and fund-raising streams he already has in place, Chaffetz has the luxury of waiting until the eleventh hour before deciding whether to enter the fray.

"Chaffetz is beloved by the delegates, well known in Utah and is developing a strong financial network," said Kirk Jowers, director of the Hinckley Institute or Politics at the University of Utah. "He could wait until the end of (2011) if he wants to make the decision (whether to run against Hatch), but ideally he'd make it by September or October."

With so many moving parts in play during the coming months, Chaffetz will balance a variety of factors in deciding whether he thinks he can beat Hatch.

"I think (Chaffetz) enjoys being an elected official," said Quin Monson, BYU political science professor and associate director of the CSED. "If he thinks he can win he will run; it's all a calculation of whether his chances are good."

By his own account, Chaffetz concurs with Monson's analysis.

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"If I run again for elective office," the Congressman said, "I have every intention of winning."

Important dates leading to 2012 election

Election cycle begins: Nov. 3, 2010

Congressional redistricting: Oct. 10, 2011*

Filing deadline for Utah presidential primary: Oct. 15, 2011

Presidential primary: Feb. 7, 2012**

Filing deadline to run for U.S. House, U.S. Senate and Utah governor: March 16, 2012

Party caucuses: March 27, 2012*

State conventions: May 12, 2012*

Primary election: June 26, 2012

General election: Nov. 6, 2012

* Estimate

** Pending funding from state Legislature

Source: Utah elections director Mark Thomas

email: jaskar@desnews.com