Utah Rep. Jason Chaffetz announced over the weekend that he is mounting a long-shot bid to become the next speaker of the House, offering a surprise challenge to Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy’s presumed selection and presenting another dramatic turn for the long-fractured Republican Party.
The 48-year-old Chaffetz suggested on Monday that he had a better shot at uniting the members of his caucus. “There is a lot of internal strife. There is a gulf and a divide that needs to be brought together,” he said on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.” “I’m trying to unify us internally so that we can — instead of firing on each other — fire on the Democrats, and communicate a message and start talking about issues.”
Chaffetz also claimed that McCarthy had to overcome “a math problem” in order to get the 218 votes needed to succeed outgoing Speaker John Boehner.
The House GOP will vote for its next speaker on Thursday by secret ballot, an election McCarthy, who has majority support among Republicans, is likely to win. But in order to actually succeed Boehner, McCarthy will also have to triumph in a full House vote at the end of the month — which is where, indeed, his “math problem” becomes a bit of an issue. McCarthy, considered by more than 30 hard-line conservatives to be basically another Boehner, has yet to secure the necessary 218 Republican votes.
As October rolls on, House lawmakers will undoubtedly be doing a lot of thinking about who they want to be their next leader. Here are five facts they might weigh when considering Chaffetz as speaker.
1. He tried to take on Planned Parenthood.
Chaffetz stepped into the spotlight last week during a high-profile congressional hearing on Planned Parenthood, but not for the reasons he was hoping. As the Republican lawmaker questioned Cecile Richards, the president of the women’s health organization, he attempted to prove that the number of cancer screenings provided by Planned Parenthood had declined in recent years, while the number of abortions had gone up. And to hammer home his point, Chaffetz whipped out an entirely misleading chart.
But no sooner had Chaffetz unveiled his grand finale then it completely fell apart before his eyes. As Richards pointed out during the hearing, Chaffetz’s source — which was printed clearly on the chart — was Americans United for Life, a prominent anti-abortion group. In reality, the number of non-abortion services provided by Planned Parenthood has remained virtually unchanged since 2006, with a slight decline in the number of cancer screenings due to, as Richards explained, “changing medical standards about who should be screened and how often.”
Another major problem with the chart? It was missing a Y axis. But no matter — Chaffetz told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer last week he did not believe the chart was misleading. “I stand by the numbers,” he said.
2. He has bad blood with the Secret Service.
As chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, Chaffetz has been one of the most vocal critics of the Secret Service, an agency that his committee oversees. But, as was revealed in true “Mean Girls” fashion earlier this year, the Secret Service doesn’t think much of Chaffetz either.
Following a March 24 committee hearing, in which Chaffetz repeatedly blasted Secret Service Director Joe Clancy for mishandling a pattern of security lapses and agent misconduct, news broke that Chaffetz had unsuccessfully applied to be an agent in 2003 and was rejected without getting an interview.
According to an investigation released last week by the Department of Homeland Security, Secret Service staff actually accessed the dirt on Chaffetz right after the March hearing and circulated the information to 45 agents and supervisors — in violation of federal privacy law. Edward Lowery, one of Clancy’s assistant directors, then encouraged the information be leaked to the media “just to be fair," he wrote in an email on March 31.
Clancy initially told the DHS inspector general that he knew nothing about the information on Chaffetz until April, when he was informed the Washington Post would be publishing an article on the matter. He recently revised his account, however, saying he had heard the information was being shared internally, but believed it to be “not credible” at the time. Chaffetz told the Washington Post Friday that Clancy had apologized to him.
3. He refused to rule out impeachment of President Obama over Benghazi.
Though McCarthy, his primary opponent for House speaker, is currently in hot water for suggesting that the purpose of an unrelenting probe into the 2012 Benghazi attack was to lower former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s standing in the presidential race, Chaffetz is not exactly free from Benghazi controversy himself. In 2013 — at the height of Republican accusations that the administration purposely misled the American people to believe the planned terrorist attack was actually a demonstration gone wrong in reaction to an anti-Islam video — Chaffetz said he was open to impeaching President Obama over his handling of the government’s response.
“We want truth,” Chaffetz said on CNN at the time. “We want to have the president do what he has said he would always do, and that is, be open and transparent. Thus far, the White House has not done that.”
4. He supported a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.
Breaking with hard-line conservatives in his party, Chaffetz said two years ago that he believes in creating a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants living in the United States.
“There should be a pathway to citizenship — not a special pathway and not no pathway,” Chaffetz told ABC 4 Utah in 2013. “But there has to be a legal, lawful way to go through this process that works, and right now it doesn’t.”
Chaffetz’s remarks, which stopped short of endorsing a bipartisan bill that would have created a 13-year path to citizenship for those already in the country illegally, came as a bit of a surprise to many of his supporters. Previously, Chaffetz had advocated deporting undocumented immigrants, eliminating in-state tuition for undocumented immigrants, and tossing out birthright citizenship. He enjoyed an A rating from the illegal immigration reduction group, Americans for Legal Immigration (ALIPAC), indicating a strong anti-amnesty stance. After Chaffetz’s remarks to ABC 4, however, ALIPAC dropped its endorsement of the Republican lawmaker and moved him from its “friends list” to its “opposition list.”
Chaffetz hasn’t mentioned a path to citizenship since. Instead, on his website’s immigration page, he emphasizes a piecemeal approach to “fixing legal immigration” through such avenues as securing the border and unclogging the asylum program.
5. He’s a GOP and Mormon convert.
College was a transformative time for Chaffetz — both spiritually, and politically. Raised Jewish, Chaffetz joined the Mormon church in the late 1980s as a student at Brigham Young University, where he earned an athletic scholarship. (Chaffetz was a kicker for the school’s football team.)
There, Chaffetz also got his first taste of politics, albeit in a surprising manner. In 1988, Chaffetz co-chaired the Utah branch of the presidential campaign of Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis, a Democrat. The future GOP star was actually semi-related to the failed Democratic candidate — Chaffetz’ stepmother, Kitty Dickson, had married Dukakis after she and Chaffetz’s father divorced.
Chaffetz’s time as a Democrat, however, was brief. While working at his first job — a spokesman for a beauty company called Nu Skin -- the company hired former President Ronald Reagan as a motivational speaker. Chaffetz credits the opportunity to work with the 40th president as the experience that made him a conservative.