Almost Fired, Cannon Girds for Tough Primary
Chaffetz Seems Unfazed by Substantial Cash Shortfall
Rep. Chris Cannon (R-Utah) will face Jason Chaffetz, the former chief of staff to Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. (R), in a June primary after the two men emerged as the top vote-getters at the state GOP convention over the weekend.
Chaffetz’s strong showing at the convention, where he actually earned more delegate votes than the Congressman, came as a bit of a surprise to Utah Republican insiders, many of whom had picked him to finish third on Saturday.
Chaffetz, who also is known in the state as a former place-kicker for the Brigham Young University football team, had run to the right of the six-term Congressman, who in recent years had been hit for his more moderate views on immigration. Chaffetz said in the days leading up to the state GOP convention that there had been a growing anti-incumbent sentiment in the 3rd district in recent cycles and that the issue was coming to a head this year.
He repeated that theme on Monday as he began the six-week sprint to the June 24 primary.
“The underlying current is people want a change,” Chaffetz said. “They are tired of Mr. Cannon and want to see some fresh blood in the seat.”
In an interview Monday on Utah talk radio, Cannon congratulated Chaffetz on his convention performance, but said the primary would be an entirely different ballgame.
“You have to give Jason credit. He really did a great job organizing,” Cannon said. “People in America really hate Washington right now. … Jason did an elegant job of working that frustration.”
But, Cannon said, Chaffetz will now have to appeal to all the Republican voters of the 3rd district and not just the more conservative party faithful who tend to participate in the convention.
“Jason spent two years working on 500 [convention] votes or so,” Cannon said.
Cannon’s second-place finish at the convention was not the first time he came out of the convention without the most delegate votes. But this time, the Congressman very nearly lost his seat because of his low vote total.
According to party rules, a candidate can avoid a primary if he or she obtains 60 percent of the delegate vote at the convention. In the previous cycle, Cannon earned a fairly comfortable 48 percent of the vote. But this year Cannon earned just 41 percent to Chaffetz’s 59 percent. Had Chaffetz obtained just 10 more delegate votes, he would have won the party nomination outright on Saturday.
Cannon was able to get to 41 percent Saturday by picking up the support of a third candidate, former prosecutor David Leavitt, who is the brother of former Gov. Mike Leavitt (R).
David Leavitt, who many Utah GOP insiders expected to finish ahead of Chaffetz at the convention, was knocked out of the race after the second ballot Saturday. After he was bumped from the race, he agreed to support Cannon and brought over just enough delegates to the Congressman to keep Chaffetz from wrapping up the contest on the third ballot.
The move by Leavitt, who like Chaffetz had also been campaigning on a message of change, did not sit well with Chaffetz supporters on Saturday.
On Monday, Chaffetz described the “deal” that was struck by Cannon and Leavitt as “the good old boys trying to take care of themselves.”
Despite Chaffetz’ showing Saturday, now that Cannon has made it out of the convention and into the primary, Chaffetz will still be seen as the underdog.
In the previous cycle, after his second-place finish in the convention, Cannon went on to a 12-point primary victory. Winning the Republican nomination is tantamount to victory in the conservative 3rd district, which takes in part of Salt Lake County and Provo.
Cannon has dominated Chaffetz on the fundraising front. As of April 20, the Congressman had raised $548,000 to Chaffetz’s $93,000. Cannon also touted his endorsement by President Bush in the days leading up to the convention.
“He’ll outspend me 10-1 easy,” Chaffetz said. However, he said, “I think what I was able to demonstrate [at the convention] was that specificity on issues and a grass-roots organization will always trump name ID and big dollars.”
Cannon’s spokesman, Fred Piccolo, said after the convention that the Congressman had been expecting a close race heading into Saturday.
“Facing an uphill convention is nothing new for Chris,” Piccolo said in an e-mail. “Utah Republicans are rightfully angry with the direction of the party in Congress.”
But Piccolo said Cannon remains confident in the primary race.
“Chris is battle tested, both in Utah and nationally,” he wrote. “We expected a primary and will move into that phase of the campaign without a problem.”