It was fourth down and an inch to go in Congressman Jason Chaffetz's expected decision to challenge Sen. Orrin Hatch. But Chaffetz, the placekicker, punted. We discuss the ramifications.
Chaffetz was talking and acting like he would challenge Hatch. Why did he back off?
Webb: The Hatch-as-mafia-assassin strategy worked. Hatch and campaign manager Dave Hansen talked tough, said they would spend $2 million (or whatever was necessary), contest every delegate all across the state, and eliminate (as in vote them out, not murder) those who don't support Hatch. And they hauled in bags full of money in Utah and Washington, D.C., leaving pennies behind for Chaffetz.
Chaffetz knew he was very popular with current delegates, but he couldn't match Hatch's army of grassroots workers, or even come close to Hatch's fundraising prowess. As he said, a Hatch/Chaffetz battle would have been bloody and divisive. Much better to opt for the security of his House seat. And, as he also noted, he has a pretty darn good job currently, with the opportunity to move up in leadership and be a factor in the House. Chaffetz is Utah's most effective member of Congress with communications and social media.
Pignanelli: "Age considers; youth ventures." — Rabindranath Tagore
In an obnoxious manner, I hereby remind readers that in prior columns I opined Chaffetz would not challenge Hatch — his House gig is too good. (Being right is a rare moment for me so please allow the gloat.) The Congressman's pronouncement is significant. Hatch v. Chaffetz would have been a clash of the Titans and changed Utah politics for a generation. But the mere judgment not to run speaks volumes. Chaffetz — with all his popularity and deep support — viewed Hatch as formidable. Moreover, the decision is an underscoring of the opportunities that remain available to Chaffetz from GOP House Leadership. Chaffetz can continue to say and do things in the House that he would never be able to do in the U.S. Senate.
Does Hatch now have an easy path to re-election? And what's next for Chaffetz?
Pignanelli: In 2009, after Attorney General Mark Shurtleff announced he was withdrawing his candidacy for the U.S. Senate, the Bennett campaign relaxed too early — providing opportunities for Mike Lee and Tim Bridgewater (the rest is history). The Bennett campaign continues to be a "learning opportunity" for Hatch, and therefore he will continue delegate outreach until the convention.
National Tea Party organizations established their momentum with a rather inexpensive method by toppling Bob Bennett. This became their springboard for other victories around the country. They hope to repeat the process in 2012 and will promise financial help to other challengers against Hatch.
For the immediate future, Chaffetz will need to mend fences with supporters that may be angry at this change of heart. He raised eyebrows with a strange setting for the declaration of his non-candidacy: Monday afternoon at the University of Utah — a liberal bastion — and at a difficult time for reporters. Further, he attacked Hatch when most politicos believed this was a time for nominal graciousness. These are landmines for Chaffetz to maneuver around. However, the right wing will always embrace his strong talents and the media will continue their love affair with his edgy but funny demeanor.
Webb: Hatch is certainly the clear favorite, but it's not a slam-dunk. He will get opposition from Tea Party candidates who are popular with delegates. Hatch's ground game remains extremely important because many current delegates simply won't support him. An ambitious state legislator or two might want to make a name for themselves, even if they don't ultimately win. Winning 60 percent of state delegates (the number needed to avoid a primary election) remains a significant challenge for Hatch.
Chaffetz can now focus on his House re-election, and tone down his anti-Hatch rhetoric.
Some polls indicate the Tea Party is losing support. Do Utahns prefer Diet Coke?
Webb: In its essence, the Tea Party is a spontaneous grassroots uprising by people angry about the economy, about profligate government spending, about deficits that threaten our future, and about "business as usual" in Washington. That's a lot to be angry about. To the movement's credit, it has shaken up the establishment and focused Washington on deficit reduction instead of more spending. We should all be grateful for that.
Good things can, of course, be taken to extremes. If the Tea Party movement promotes ideology over problem-solving, makes completely unrealistic demands of our political leaders, refuses to accept compromise as sometimes necessary, is unwilling to recognize that government isn't always the enemy, is not civil in its political discourse and tries to cut too fast and too deeply, then it will lose steam and support in Utah.
Pignanelli: A well known GOP operative explained this new development to me: "Utah Republicans support the ideals of the Tea Party movement. However, at church, we steer our children away from encountering most individual Tea Party activists and we certainly don't let the kids knock on their doors at Halloween." I cannot improve on this insightful analysis.
Republican LaVarr Webb is a political consultant and lobbyist. Previously he was policy deputy to Gov. Mike Leavitt and Deseret News managing editor. Email: email@example.com. Democrat Frank Pignanelli is a Salt Lake attorney, lobbyist and political adviser. Pignanelli served 10 years in the Utah House of Representatives, six years as minority leader. His spouse, D'Arcy Dixon Pignanelli, is a state tax commissioner. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org