In the fight for support from influential Mormon Republicans in Utah, this round goes to Mitt Romney.
Rep. Jason E. Chaffetz (R-Utah) said Tuesday he is endorsing Romney for the Republican presidential nomination over former Utah governor Jon Huntsman Jr., even though Chaffetz once worked for Huntsman as his gubernatorial campaign manager and chief of staff.
“Jon Huntsman is a good man,” Chaffetz said in an interview. “He’s been very good to me. I just want to beat Barack Obama, and I think Mitt Romney’s in the best position to do that. His background in dealing with capital markets and finance is imperative if we’re going to get our economy turned around. He’s specialized in turnarounds. He understands that and gets it and has done it personally.”
Chaffetz said several presidential candidates actively sought his endorsement, including Romney, a former Massachusetts governor, and Huntsman. A rising star in the House, Chaffetz, 44, is seen as a leader among the chamber’s tea party conservatives. He is in his second term representing Utah’s 3rd congressional district, which covers the state’s more Republican areas, including Provo.
Chaffetz, who backed Romney during his 2008 presidential bid, said he offered to campaign on his behalf this time. Chaffetz said he attended a recent Romney fundraiser in New York as well as the campaign’s national fundraising telethon this spring in Las Vegas, where Romney raised more than $10 million in pledges in a single day.
Romney and Huntsman, who are both Mormon, are competing vigorously for many of the same donors and political backers in Utah, where their church is headquartered and where they share a strong network of supporters.
Huntsman was a popular governor elected to two terms and his father, Jon Huntsman Sr., is one of the state’s most prominent businessmen and philanthropists. Romney, meanwhile, is celebrated there as the savior of the 2002 Olympic Winter Games and enjoyed favorite son status in Utah during his 2008 run.
This time, Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) as well as Utah Gov. Gary Herbert and former senator Robert Bennett (R) are backing Romney over Huntsman. Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff, who served with Huntsman, announced his endorsement of Romney during the candidate’s Salt Lake City visit last month.
The state’s junior senator, Mike Lee (R) is neutral so far. Although he once worked for Huntsman as chief counsel in the governor’s office, Lee met last week with Romney on Capitol Hill.
For Huntsman, Chaffetz’s endorsement is a particularly painful rebuff, considering the congressman earned his political stripes at Huntsman’s side. Chaffetz began as a volunteer on Huntsman’s 2004 gubernatorial campaign before becoming the communications director and later campaign manager. After Huntsman won, Chaffetz served as his first chief of staff, but resigned after about a year to work in the private sector.
Chaffetz said he broke the news to Huntsman last week. He said Huntsman was “a gentleman.”
“As I told Jon, I made some commitments to Mitt Romney well before Jon Huntsman was even a whisper,” Chaffetz said. “I made it clear to Jon that I intended to live up to those commitments.”