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Story highlights

Chaffetz is likely to run for governor in 2020

Chaffetz had two years left in term as chair of House Oversight committee

(CNN) —  

Utah Rep. Jason Chaffetz’s decision Wednesday not to run for re-election in 2018 is the clearest signal yet that ambitious, young politicians view time served in Washington as an impediment to seeking – and winning – higher office.

“After long consultation with my family and prayerful consideration, I have decided I will not be a candidate for any office in 2018,” Chaffetz said in a statement posted on Facebook Wednesday morning. “For those that would speculate otherwise, let me be clear that I have no ulterior motives.”

But, of course, he does. (This is politics, after all!)

Back in early 2016, Chaffetz told the Deseret News that he was keeping a very close eye on the state’s governorship.

“I’m not going to be here forever,” Chaffetz said of Washington. “I would take a serious, serious look at running for governor. I want to go as hard and fast as I can in the House and then go home.”

(Utah doesn’t term limit its governors but Republican incumbent Gary Herbert is not expected to run again in 2020.)

That Deseret News interview is interesting not just for Chaffetz’s open acknowledgment that he’d like to be governor but also because he makes very clear he doesn’t have any interest in running for the US Senate. “The more I’m here, the more I’m convinced I don’t want to be in the United States Senate,” Chaffetz said. “I’ve already invested years in the House and it’s essentially the same job, just more people over here and more competition.”

Here’s what we know then: Chaffetz never viewed himself as a House lifer. He came to the realization he didn’t want to be in the Senate. He would like to be governor. And he says he’s healthy and there’s no looming scandal he is running away from.

It’s not terribly complicated then to conclude that Chaffetz decided that the best way for him to get elected governor in three years time is to get the heck out of Washington as soon as possible.

That decision is a reflection of the current state of our politics – particularly on the Republican side. Washington – and all the politicians who occupy it – are viewed with suspicion (and that’s being nice) by the Republican base. The longer you spend in Washington, the worse off you are; for every year there, it becomes that much tougher to get away from the DC stench in the minds (and noses) of Republican voters.

Then there is the Trump complication. Trump won the Beehive State in 2016 but voters in the largely Mormon state were less than thrilled with his brand of conservatism. Trump’s approval rating was just 47 percent in the most recent poll in the state, a poor showing in a place as conservative as Utah.

Chaffetz’s decision means walking away from one of the most high-profile jobs in Washington – chair of the House Oversight and Government Reform committee – two years before he would be term-limited out of the gig. (Note: Chairing the oversight committee as a Republican with a Republican in the White House is slightly less high profile than if a Democrat sat in the White House.)

“He finds himself in this no-win situation in DC,” longtime Salt Lake Tribune political reporter Robert Gehrke told me in an email Wednesday. “Does Chaffetz use the House Oversight spot to go after Trump and burn bridges with the White House and in Congress, or does he play lapdog and end up wrecking his chances for what he really wants and that’s governor in 2020?”

Rather than spending the next three years elbow-deep in the daily dramas of Republican Washington and answering for every controversial comment made by Trump, Chaffetz will wash his hands off all of that and spend the next few years building an organization in Utah for a race that is likely to include not only Republican Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox but also Josh Romney, a son of two-time Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney.

“There’s no question getting out of Congress, shedding the Trump baggage and coming back here and shoring up support for what could be a hard 2020 primary is really the best option,” Gehrke concluded.

He’s right. The question is how many other ambitious Republican politicians follow Chaffetz’s lead and get out of Trump’s Washington before it might be too late.