David Rodeback's Blog
Local Politics and Culture, National Politics,
Thursday, June 19, 2008
Jason Chaffetz and I Share a Common Geography
He's running in Utah's Third Congressional District, but he lives in the Second, as do I.
I live in Utah's Second Congressional District, where three-term incumbent Democrat Jim Matheson will pulverize Republican challenger Bill Dew in November. At least Dew did us the service of eliminating loose cannon (with a small "c") Merrill Cook in the state Republican convention, sparing us the likely indignities of that primary. Dew seemed like a nice guy when I met him over breakfast the other day, and he has some fairly sensible ideas about energy and a few other things. But neither he nor his campaign, so far, strikes me as the sort of seasoned, relentless, intelligent opposition that might stand a chance of victory against Matheson in November.
Meanwhile, there's a relatively interesting Republican primary contest in the Third District between six-term incumbent Chris Cannon (with a large "C") and challenger Jason Chaffetz. Chaffetz fell just a few votes short of the 60 percent majority needed to eliminate Cannon at convention and avoid a primary altogether. As it is, having more votes at convention doesn't necessarily translate into a primary victory. The state Republican delegates are a somewhat narrow and radicalized constituency, not a good cross-section of the voters at large. Two years ago, John Jacob had more votes than Cannon at convention, but lost by about 11 percent in the primary.
Word on the street is that Chaffetz is a seasoned, relentless, intelligent, possibly even ruthless campaigner, which is how he nearly eliminated Cannon at convention. For his part, Cannon reportedly didn't do a lot of campaigning among the delegates. No doubt Chaffetz has Cannon's attention now.
An issue-by-issue comparison of the two is pointless in this race; the differences are small, if you can find them at all. On one hand, Cannon has a very conservative voting record. On the other hand, Chaffetz is pushing all the right Utah Republican buttons. Even if their positions weren't very much alike, it's difficult to make a meaningful comparison between an actual voting record (Cannon's) and a challenger's (Chaffetz's) carefully scripted words.
That said, pushing all the right buttons seems a little too pat, as if it is an exercise in careful marketing, not conviction. Doesn't Chaffetz disagree with the Utah Republican stereotype on any issue? I'm still looking.
In any case, the Chaffetz campaign seems professional and high-profile. Why can't the Second District produce such an opponent for Matheson?
The answer is, it might have. You see, I have something in common with Jason Chaffetz that you might not suspect. I can't vote for him, and neither can he, because we both live in the Second District. No, this is not a scandal or a cover-up. Utah law requires that a candidate for Congress be a Utah resident, but there is no legal requirement that a candidate for a particular district's seat actually live in that district. At least some other states' laws allow this, too, and some Members of Congress have been elected from districts not their own.
I understand why Chaffetz is running in the Third District, not his own Second District. He wants to be in Congress, and he calculated that a smart, hard-working campaign might defeat Cannon in convention, before Cannon even realized there was a campaign going on. It almost worked, but it didn't. Now Chaffetz is banking on more hard work, combined with anti-incumbent fervor, to see him through the primary, but I don't think there's that much anti-incumbent fervor outside the convention. In this case the incumbent is in the minority in Congress, and thus is somewhat immunized against charges that it has been a "do-nothing" Congress.
If Jason Chaffetz were really more interested in changing things for the (conservative) better in Washington than in advancing his own political career, he would have employed his campaign skills and experience in his own district against Jim Matheson. The odds would have been slimmer, yes, but a victory there would have meant one less vote for Democratic leadership in the House of Representatives, and one more seat toward a Republican majority. In the race he chose, a victory means simply trading one Republican vote for another Republican vote, and replacing a veteran with a rookie. How does that help?
Here's a tricky scenario that won't happen: Suppose Chaffetz wins next week's primary, then wins Third District in November. In two years he could return to his home district (the Second) for a run against Matheson, bringing with him some of the advantages of incumbency. That would be a battle to watch, but I'm not holding my breath. Not only is that level of selflessness well beyond the average sitting Member of Congress; that level of cunning is probably beyond the Utah Republican Party. The Second District seat likely will be Jim Matheson's for as long as he wants it.
Copyright 2008 by David Rodeback.