Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) shocked Washington on Wednesday by announcing he is leaving Congress after his term ends.
Chaffetz, the chairman of the House Oversight Committee, kept the surprise decision under wraps, offering no hints that he planned to cut short his tenure leading the panel.
Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) wasn’t told of Chaffetz’s decision until Tuesday evening, according to an aide, and White House chief of staff Reince Priebus only got a heads-up from the chairman on Wednesday morning.
Sources on the Oversight panel also said they didn’t see the news coming.
Chaffetz has long been seen as one of Washington’s most ambitious politicians, and the news immediately stoked questions about whether he would run for governor or the Senate.
Chaffetz said he would not run for any office in 2018, which would take him out of Utah’s Senate race that year. But he didn’t rule out a run for Utah governor in 2020, saying he “may run again for public office.”
Asked by KSL News Radio if he’d run for governor, Chaffetz said “maybe.”
“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.
One reason the Chaffetz news was surprising is that he could have stayed on as Oversight Committee chairman through 2020.
The panel is one of Washington’s most powerful, though it might have less appeal for a Republican lawmaker when his party controls Congress and the White House.
If Hillary Clinton had defeated President Trump, Chaffetz was poised to be her lead GOP interrogator. He had vowed to investigate Clinton back in October when it appeared she would win the presidential election.
He’s now in the position of largely defending Trump, which perhaps made the Oversight post less attractive for the media-savvy lawmaker.
When asked by KSL on Wednesday what his top priorities were for the rest of his term as chairman, Chaffetz highlighted a focus on Utah’s Bears Ears National Monument designation made by the Obama administration. What wasn’t mentioned? Any investigations into Trump or Clinton.
In explaining his decision, Chaffetz repeatedly cited a desire to spend more time with his family in Utah and return to the private sector.
He preemptively dismissed speculation that he was stepping down for health reasons, GOP leaders’ confidence in his ability to serve as chairman, or fear that he could lose reelection next year in his solidly red district.
The congressman had drawn ire for aggressively pursuing lines of investigation into Clinton’s use of a private email server while declining to investigate anything related to Trump’s business conflicts of interest and alleged ties to Russia.
He faced a hostile town hall in February with constituents demanding to know why he wasn’t examining Trump’s conflicts of interests. Video of people shouting “do your job!” ricocheted around the social media. Chaffetz later downplayed the angry protesters as “a paid attempt to bully and intimidate.”
Though Chaffetz’s district is unlikely to be a Democratic target next year, there were signs the negative headlines about declining to investigate the Trump administration were taking a toll.
Kathryn Allen, a long-shot Democratic challenger, raised nearly $400,000 more than the incumbent last month, with donations piling up after Chaffetz said on CNN that low-income Americans might have to prioritize spending on healthcare “rather than get that new iPhone.”
Chaffetz had also already drawn a primary challenger, lawyer Damian Kidd. And Evan McMullin, an anti-Trump independent presidential candidate who drew a significant number of votes away from Trump in his home state of Utah, has said he’s considering a run in Chaffetz’s district.
Trump won Utah with 46 percent support, compared to Clinton’s 27 percent and McMullin’s 22 percent.
Supporters of Provo Mayor John Curtis had also formed a crowd-funding campaign to urge him to run against Chaffetz in the GOP primary.
His departure will eventually set in motion a race to succeed him atop the Oversight Committee in the next year.
Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.), who’s best known for leading the select committee investigating the 2012 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, is at this point likely the most viable contender despite being eighth in seniority on the Oversight panel.
Several members of the Freedom Caucus are more senior members of the Oversight Committee, like Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), who unsuccessfully ran against Chaffetz for the gavel in 2014. But their clashes with GOP leaders, who hold the most sway over committee assignments, would likely impede their chances of winning one of the most high-profile posts in Congress.
Aides to Oversight Committee Republicans who could be in the running declined to say Wednesday whether they’d run for the post, underlining how unexpected the sudden opening was.
Chaffetz insisted he made the decision simply because he’d had enough after spending many nights in the last eight years sleeping on a cot in his congressional office.
“I’ve been away from my family for more than 1,500 nights and it’s as simple as a fact that I love my wife and I adore my kids, and you just gotta reevaluate your life when you’re sleeping on a cot in your office,” Chaffetz told Fox News.