Rep. Jason Chaffetz, A Newly Minted Conservative

When first-term Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) says Republicans can’t be Democrat Lite, he speaks with authority: he’s a former Democrat, and he beat out a 12-year incumbent in this election’s Republican primary race.

“We just can’t be ‘sort of like the Democrats,’” Chaffetz said. “We’ve got to get our message out there and consistent and stand true and proud that we’re Republicans and we’re conservative, and this is why — and not run around and try to be like Barack Obama. That’s not the way to the future.”

Chaffetz spent his early years in the Democrat Party and even helped on Michael Dukakis’ 1988 presidential campaign as a teenager (Chaffetz’s father was formerly married to Kitty Dukakis).

“I got to see the presidential election up close and personal,” Chaffetz said. “I came to realize it’s very real people making very real decisions. My conversion to the Republican Party happened when I got a job: I got serious about life, I got married, I had kids. All of these things really made me think deeply about who I am and the proper role of government.”

The end result was not only a party switch but a new profession of conservatism. As in Ronald Reagan’s case, the convert has become more “hardcore” than a number of veteran legislators in Congress.

“I argued [in the primaries] that the Republicans who had the House and Senate and the Presidency blew it,” said Chaffetz, who preaches the core conservative principles of fiscal discipline, limited government, accountability, and a strong national defense.

Chaffetz feels that made the difference in his primary race, when he beat out a fairly conservative incumbent in the Republican primaries.

“If we stay true to those principles, we’ll be very successful,” Chaffetz said. “Those core principles, when you talk to the American people, that’s where I think they are. That’s not the leadership and voting they’re getting in Washington, D.C.”

He ran a very different campaign in the primaries as well: no paid staff, no polling, no campaign office. He refused to buy meals for potential voters. Chaffetz was outspent by $600,000 and still walked away with a 20-point victory margin.

“I don’t buy this notion that you have to have big name I.D. or big dollars to be successful,” Chaffetz said.

Not surprisingly, fiscal discipline is still at the top of his list in Congress, both on the floor and in his personal habits. Chaffetz’s decision to sleep on a mattress in his office rather than rent an apartment in Washington, D.C. brought Fox News and CNN knocking.

“If you don’t get that equation right, you can’t do anything else,” Chaffetz said of his first legislative priority in Washington. He also wants Congress to look at immigration — perhaps when the voting configuration is more favorable — and make sure Americans aren’t lulled back to sleep on the energy issue. He’s interested in taking better care of the troops and feels they’ve been forgotten recently in national discussions.

“It’s taking care of the people that have taken care of us,” Chaffetz said.

Chaffetz also said his sleeping arrangements were never intended as a gimmick — the decision came from an honest assessment of the situation and the need to save money. He usually works in the office until midnight and is up at 5 or 5:30 the next morning.

“It was the reality that we could save the Chaffetz family 1500 dollars a month,” said Chaffetz, who has a wife and three kids. “I refuse to go into debt.”

If only Congress would adopt that resolution.

This article is sixth in a series of HUMAN EVENTS profiles featuring newly elected conservatives in the House of Representatives.