SALT LAKE CITY – Rep. Jason Chaffetz of Utah announced Monday that he wouldn't challenge longtime Sen. Orrin Hatch for the Republican nomination next year, ending a statewide effort that has been building for months and possibly disappointing tea party advocates who saw him as their best shot for knocking off another GOP senator.
While Chaffetz maintained during his announcement that he could beat Hatch -- and continued to criticize the six-term senator, who Chaffetz said he hasn't spoken to in "months" -- he acknowledged the race would have been a "blood bath" costing millions of dollars and requiring his entire focus.
Supporters of Chaffetz included national conservative groups FreedomWorks and Club for Growth. Without him, they are left struggling to find a strong challenger to a senator they would like to see dismissed in the same fashion as longtime conservative Sen. Robert Bennett.
Bennett lost the GOP nomination at the 2010 state Republican convention, in large part due to anger over his support of the Troubled Assets Relief Program. He was eventually replaced by Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, who has strong support among tea party members.
Earlier this month, Chaffetz launched a series of town hall meetings outside of his congressional district that were essentially a dry run for his Senate race. He planned three more meetings outside of his district later this month, which he said Monday would be canceled.
But despite his popularity among Republican delegates, Chaffetz faced an uphill battle against the well-funded Hatch, who has lead Chaffetz in recent head-to-head polls.
Hatch has been criticized by conservatives for working with Democrats on legislation. One example: teaming up with a liberal icon, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, to create a government program to provide health insurance for poor children.
But Hatch has recently worked to build support among tea party conservatives, many of whom value his seniority on the Senate Finance Committee and his sponsorship of a bill proposing to amend the Constitution to require a balanced budget.
The 44-year-old Chaffetz said the prominent role he played over the last two months in the fight over increasing the federal debt ceiling also influenced his decision. He was the lead sponsor on the Cut, Cap and Balance plan and a de facto spokesman for House conservatives opposed to a plan proposed by House Speaker John Boehner.
Chaffetz said Monday that he hopes to continue playing a leadership role in the House.
"I could've spent the next 15 months campaigning for a job as a senator, or I could spend the next 15 months doing the job I was elected to do," Chaffetz said, adding that he would seek a third U.S. House term in 2012.
Hatch's campaign manager Dave Hansen said in a statement that they looked forward to working with Chaffetz, instead of running against him.
"We wish Congressman Chaffetz the best in his congressional campaign and in his continued service as one of Utah's representatives," Hansen said.