A Mormon Republican with a shock of dark hair and a winning smile is traveling the country angling for a spot in the White House, and, no, it’s not former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.
Rep. Jason Chaffetz has become one of Romney’s most high-profile surrogates on the presidential campaign trail, leading sources close to the Utahn to speculate that the fiercely ambitious firebrand might have a Romney administration post in his sights.
Chaffetz and the Romney camp insist that, despite his dogged support, such talk is premature. But in interviews, neither ruled out the possibility.
“Would I consider it?” Chaffetz said. “Absolutely. It would be an honor. But we’re getting way ahead of ourselves.”
Chaffetz is no stranger to politicking. He managed Jon Huntsman’s successful 2004 Utah gubernatorial campaign, and before that, when he was a Democrat, he served as Utah co-chairman for Michael Dukakis’ 1988 presidential bid.
As a testament to his support for Romney, he notably spurned Huntsman to endorse early in the race, a decision Chaffetz said was motivated by his heartfelt belief that Romney has the best chance to beat President Barack Obama.
Now, applying his background in corporate communications, Chaffetz trails former Speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.) at presidential campaign events in primary states to offer real-time rebuttals as one of Romney’s top spin doctors.
He has been spotted on TV promoting the candidate, at primary debates sitting behind Romney’s wife, Ann, and even outside Gingrich events publicly scrapping with the former Speaker’s press staff.
“He’s one of our strongest surrogates who has really stepped up and done everything we’ve asked of him,” Romney spokesman Ryan Williams said. “He’s a committed conservative, he has strong tea party credentials and he’s able to passionately describe why Gov. Romney is the strongest candidate.”
His strong tea party backing also helps him validate Romney to that crowd, a helpful role for a candidate whose conservative credentials are routinely called into question.
Whether he could parlay that kind of role into an administration post drives speculation from Utah to Capitol Hill, and that’s the way the affable, media-savvy Congressman likes it.
“Knowing Chaffetz, he never completely closes a door,” former staffer Alisia Essig said. “He doesn’t pass on these opportunities until it is the last hour. He keeps the door open; he keeps people talking about it.”
For a time, it seemed a foregone conclusion that Chaffetz would challenge GOP Sen. Orrin Hatch this year. He had experience going after a veteran lawmaker, having knocked off then-Rep. Chris Cannon in a primary in 2008.
But Chaffetz decided to sidestep an intraparty bloodbath and Hatch’s multimillion-dollar war chest and focus on electing Romney as president.
“I’m a patient person. I’m not trying to climb the ladder so fast and elbow everybody out of the way,” he said.
Some close to Chaffetz said they could see him in some kind of communications role in the White House.
“Chaffetz would be phenomenal as White House spokesman or working as some type of legislative liaison capacity,” said Chaffetz confidant Kirk Jowers, director of the University of Utah’s Hinckley Institute of Politics. “If President Romney felt he really needed Congressman Chaffetz to serve some role for him, he would probably be open to doing it.”
Others, however, dismissed the prospect of a Congressman stepping down to spin the White House press pool, implying a Member would leave office for nothing less than an ambassador job, Cabinet position, chief of staff post or something similarly prominent.
Chaffetz, in fact, used to be chief of staff to Romney’s opponent-turned-backer Huntsman, but the two-term Congressman may not have the experience to play that role in the White House.
So while he might not fit the mold of a Cabinet secretary or chief of staff, for now, Chaffetz, 44, said he is content in the Capitol and could help advance Romney’s priorities there.
“I do foresee myself as being one of the key conduits in the House to what a President Romney would be doing,” Chaffetz said. “To be somebody who has that sort of working relationship with the White House would be a dream come true.”
Others close to Chaffetz suggest his dreams ultimately point back to Utah, perhaps in the governor’s mansion. If that is the case, it wouldn’t hurt to have Romney on his side.
Romney is a safe bet in the Beehive State, where he is known for heading the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics. He won about 90 percent of the state’s GOP presidential primary vote in 2008, and more than half of the population shares his Mormon faith.
Characteristically, Chaffetz did not rule out a run for the governorship.
“I may do that someday, but again, there’s no rush,” he said.