SALT LAKE CITY — Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, confirmed Thursday he may step down before the end of his term, sending state officials scrambling to get a process in place for a potential special election to fill his 3rd District seat in Congress.
"My future plans are not yet finalized, but I haven't ruled out the possibility of leaving early. In the meantime, I still have a job to do, and I have no plans to take my foot off the gas," Chaffetz said in a statement.
He made a surprise announcement Wednesday that he would not run for a sixth term or for any other office in 2018, instead returning to the private sector in what he suggested would be a communications position.
While Chaffetz is not expected to resign this week, state officials are recognizing they need to be ready when and if he does.
But all state law says is that it's up to Gov. Gary Herbert to call a special election for Chaffetz's seat if he leaves before his current term ends at the beginning of 2019. There are no specifics about how such an election should be conducted.
"All options on on the table," state Elections Director Mark Thomas said. "We'll have to figure it out."
Utah hasn't had to hold a special election for a congressional seat since five-term Republican Elmer Leatherwood died in office in December 1929, but that election wasn't held until Election Day in November of 1930, according to UtahPolicy.com,
An attempt to spell out how such an election would be conducted failed during the 2017 Legislature. At the time, 2nd District Rep. Chris Stewart was reportedly a contender for secretary of the Air Force under President Donald Trump.
Thomas said "a lot of different scenarios" for a special congressional election were discussed during the session, including putting qualified candidates from all political parties on a single ballot with the possibility of a run-off race.
Or, he said, voters might choose from candidates picked by the various political parties, an option that could also include candidates who bypass the party nomination process and gather voter signatures for a place on the ballot.
The governor has the power to dictate how the election is handled, Thomas said.
Herbert said Thursday a special election might not look that much different from a regular election — including a primary if needed — but would have to be handled in a constricted time frame.
"I think there is a little uncertainty as to what the process is because we have not done it before," the governor said Thursday at his monthly news conference on KUED. "We will let the attorney general's office and our legal experts guide on this."
State Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo, who sponsored last session's special elections legislation, said there's a tradeoff between how involved the process is and how fast a vacancy can be filled.
"That may be good or bad," Bramble said. A traditional-style election that includes party conventions, signature-gathering and possibly a primary in advance of a final decision would take at least three months, he said.
"It simply runs the clock. That was part of the debate. Do we want to fill the seat quickly or do we want to be deliberative," he said. Mentioned as a possible candidate himself for Chaffetz's seat, Bramble said only, "stay tuned."
The governor, a Republican, said he does not believe a special session of the Legislature will be needed to deal with the process for filling a congressional vacancy if Chaffetz does decide to leave early.
However, the left-leaning Alliance for a Better Utah asked Herbert to call lawmakers into special session "as soon as possible" to set up a special election process, warning that otherwise the election could end up in the courts.
"it would be foolish for the state to rush into a special election that isn't governed by clear timelines and procedures set in law," Chase Thomas, the alliance's policy and advocacy counsel, said.
Utah Democratic Party Chairman Peter Corroon said he'd like to see Democrats have a say in how the special election is set up so there's "a fair system for all candidates." But he wasn't optimistic.
"The bottom line is, if Jason Chaffetz steps down, we really don't know what the election to replace him will look like," Corroon said, predicting Republicans "will gerrymander that system to their favor."
There's already no shortage of candidates to replace Chaffetz, who faced a raucous crowd at a town hall meeting earlier this year angry that the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee he chairs was not investigating Trump.
National Democrats already are interested in the race, helping to fill the campaign coffers of Kathryn Allen, a Cottonwood Heights doctor who attracted the attention of Rosie O'Donnell for criticizing Chaffetz online.
Tom Perez, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, told the Deseret News Thursday the national party sees a real opportunity to claim Chaffetz's seat, especially if there's a special election.
"We’re going to swing the bat there. We’re going to swing the bat everywhere," Perez, the U.S. labor secretary under President Barack Obama, said. "You saw the genuine passion at the town hall meetings. People, I think, were outraged."
Perez spoke from Georgia, where a Democrat in a "beet red" congressional district, Jon Ossoff, narrowly missed an outright win in a special election for a GOP-held seat seen as referendum on Trump.
"Look at what's happening in these special elections," Perez said. "Democrats are motivated and they're coming out in force."
He will join independent Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who ran for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2016, at a noon rally at The Rail Event Center in Salt Lake City as part of their "Come Together and Fight Back" tour of largely GOP states.
Chaffetz may be out of politics in the next general election, but he left open the possibility he would run for governor in 2020, a race he said he was taking a "serious, serious look" at last year.
Herbert, who has been in office since 2009 and has not been expected to seek re-election, would not say Thursday if he planned on seeking another term. Instead, he joked about being left off the list of potential gubernatorial candidates.
Contributing: Amy Joi O'Donoghue