WASHINGTON – Utah Rep. Jason Chaffetz, a Republican who doggedly investigated Hillary Clinton before the 2016 presidential election but declined to investigate President Donald Trump, abruptly announced Wednesday that he won't run for re-election.
Chaffetz, who has been rumored as a possible candidate for Senate or governor, said that after consulting with his family and "prayerful consideration, I have decided I will not be a candidate for any office in 2018."
The 50-year-old Chaffetz had strolled to four easy re-elections in his Republican-friendly congressional district. But he was facing a surprising challenge from a Democratic newcomer who raised more than a half-million dollars by tapping into anger over Chaffetz's recent comment suggesting people should spend their money on health insurance instead of iPhones.
Political unknown Dr. Kathryn Allen has been transformed into a liberal hero for calling out Chaffetz on Twitter, gaining an early boost in name recognition.
Chaffetz, the chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, also drew fire from Democrats after saying he would not investigate Trump's business empire, given that he had promised before the presidential election that he would investigate Clinton "for years" if she was elected.
"It's a tough decision. I love serving in Congress, but I love my family more," Chaffetz said in an interview Wednesday with KSL Newsradio in Salt Lake City. "I really meant it when I said I was going to get in, serve and get out."
Running for Utah governor in 2020 is a possibility, Chaffetz said, but he's not willing to commit one way or another.
"I'm trying to leave the door open for possibilities down the road," he said.
Chaffetz led a nearly two-year investigation into Clinton's use of a private email server while she was secretary of state, continuing the inquiry even after the 2016 election. And he and other Republicans asked the Justice Department to investigate whether Clinton lied to Congress during her 2015 testimony to House Benghazi panel.
In a statement on Facebook, Chaffetz noted that he has long advocated that public service should be for a limited time. He said that after more than 1,500 nights away from home, "it is time" to step aside.
Chaffetz said he has "no ulterior motives" and is healthy and confident he would be re-elected.
House Speaker Paul Ryan tweeted that Chaffetz is "a great defender of liberty and limited government" and wished him the best.
Still, Chaffetz has run into political turbulence. He was met by frequent, deafening boos at a February town hall as constituents grilled him on everything from investigating Trump's tax returns to Planned Parenthood. Chaffetz repeatedly said, "hold on," and "give me a second," as audience members in a Salt Lake City suburb reacted negatively to nearly all of his statements and implored him to "do your job" and investigate Trump.
In a CNN interview in March, Chaffetz was asked how lower-income Americans would get access to health insurance if the Affordable Care Act, also known as "Obamacare," is repealed by congressional Republicans.
"Americans have choices," he responded. "Maybe rather than getting that new iPhone that they just love, and they want to go spend hundreds of dollars on that, maybe they should invest in their own health care."
The remarks triggered a firestorm of criticism on social media with people comparing how many iPhones they could buy if they didn't have to pay medical bills in the tens of thousands of dollars. Chaffetz later conceded on Fox News that his point about people being self-reliant didn't come out as smoothly as it could have.
Half of the voters are registered Republicans in Chaffetz' 3rd congressional district, which stretches from suburban Salt Lake City to desert towns in southeastern Utah and includes heavily conservative Mormon areas. Chaffetz won 73 percent of the vote last fall, and Trump won the district by 24 points.
While Chaffetz declined to investigate Trump, he did criticize a top Trump aide who promoted Ivanka Trump's fashion line during a cable TV appearance from the White House. Chaffetz called Kellyanne Conway's actions "wrong, wrong, wrong" and joined Cummings in asking the Office of Government Ethics to review the matter.
Chris Karpowitz, co-director at Brigham Young University's Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy, said Chaffetz may be seeking to avoid a potentially embarrassing primary loss or close race in 2018 that could hurt his prospects for the 2020 governor's race.
"It's still somewhat surprising to me," Karpowitz said. "It seems that at the first sign of trouble, he's decided not to run."
Chaffetz is at least the seventh House Republican to resign this year or announce plans to retire, including four who left to join Trump's Cabinet. Rep. Kristi Noem of South Dakota is running for governor, and Reps. Sam Johnson of Texas and Lynn Jenkins of Kansas are retiring.