SALT LAKE CITY — Now that Jason Chaffetz has announced his plans to seek re-election in the U.S. House of Representatives, the fuzzy picture of Utah's political landscape should start to come into focus.
Chaffetz had been considered a serious candidate to challenge longtime Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch in 2012. By his own admission, Chaffetz had been acting like a candidate for U.S. Senate for months, even holding town hall meetings outside the 3rd Congressional District he represents.
"Mentally, I've been in and out of (the Senate race) multiple times," he said.
"The Utah political world absolutely revolved around Chaffetz for these past few months, as everyone wondered whether he would stay in the House, run for the Senate or even for governor," said Kirk Jowers, director of the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics, where Chaffetz made his announcement Monday.
Potential candidates for the U.S. House, Senate and perhaps even Utah governor likely have been holding off on making decisions about possible political runs until Chaffetz made his intentions known, Jowers said.
"Nobody wanted to necessarily step on his toes or put themselves in a position where they would face him," he said. "Now that we know he's staying in the House, it gives all the ambitious politicians the lines they need to start carving out their own space."
During Monday's news conference, Chaffetz acknowledged the "domino effect" created by his flirting with the idea of a run at the Senate.
"People are trying to make decisions about whether or not to run for the House or whether or not to run for the Senate," Chaffetz said, adding that it was one of the reasons he made his announcement "sooner rather than later."
Chaffetz also said he wanted to announce his plans before the Utah Legislature redraws the state's political districts — including a fourth congressional district. A legislative committee is considering proposed redistricting plans and will present its recommendations to the full Legislature at a special session in October.
So far, state Rep. Carl Wimmer, R-Herriman, has announced his plans to run for the U.S. House of Representatives — but not against Chaffetz. Wimmer has said he'd like to run for the new fourth seat, depending on how district boundaries are drawn.
Cherilyn Eagar, a Holladay resident and business owner, has started campaigning as a Republican candidate in the race for Utah's 2nd District, the seat held for the past six terms by Democrat Jim Matheson.
Morgan Philpot, another Republican, has formed a committee to "test the waters" for another run for Congress. The Orem resident came close to knocking off Matheson in November 2010.
Jowers said he expects to see more candidates enter the respective congressional races in the coming weeks, "probably even before the (new district) lines are drawn."
Chaffetz's and Matheson's plans, along with the redistricting process, make up what Jowers termed "the three-ring circus of Utah politics over the past six months."
Matheson has been weighing his political options, which reportedly include running for governor, the U.S. Senate or re-election in the House in 2012.
Matheson issued a news release Monday calling Chaffetz's decision to seek re-election in the House "a big step" that "involves serious discussions with family, friends and advisers."
"I am engaged in the same sort of thoughtful process, independent of Jason's decision," Matheson said.
"Many have encouraged me to run for statewide office," he said, "and I am currently evaluating the opportunities to best continue my work."
Polls conducted by Dan Jones and Associates for the Deseret News and KSL-TV in June indicate that Matheson would be a formidable candidate in either of the statewide races he's considering.
Of the 406 registered voters polled statewide June 13-16, a gubernatorial race between Gov. Gary Herbert and Matheson would be a tight race, with 48 percent saying they'd vote for Herbert and 45 percent picking Matheson.
If Matheson were to enter the Senate race, voters would be split — with 47 percent favoring Hatch and 47 percent preferring Matheson, according to the poll.
That same poll also showed that a Chaffetz/Hatch matchup would have made for an exciting race. Forty-one percent said they would vote for Chaffetz, while 40 percent said they would vote for Hatch.
Among a smaller sample of voters who said they were likely to vote in a Republican primary, Hatch was favored over Chaffetz 47 percent to 44 percent. The polls had a margin of error of 5 percent.
"I think that would have been a fascinating battle," Chaffetz said. "I think my chances were very, very good at beating Sen. Hatch."
Following Chaffetz's announcement, Hatch's campaign issued a news release, wishing the congressman "the best in his congressional campaign and in his continued service as one of Utah's representatives."
"Sen. Hatch looks forward to continuing to work together as a delegation to find solutions to the critical issues facing Utah and our nation," said Dave Hansen, Hatch's campaign manager.
Chaffetz said his decision came down to a desire to build on his successes in the House and the realization that a run against Hatch likely would be "a multimillion-dollar bloodbath."
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