‘Dancing With the Stars’ Dad Jabs House Race Rival on Biden Vote

  • Edwards has advantages in name recognition, campaign funding
  • Republican winner favored to finish term of Rep. Chris Stewart

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Centrist impulses and the potential baggage of having voted for Joe Biden are under scrutiny in a special Utah election to fill the shoes of a departing House Republican.

Becky Edwards, who raised her political profile by trying to oust Sen. Mike Lee (R) in 2022, is running in the Sept. 5 GOP primary as a “common-sense conservative,” highlighting her compromise-minded approach during a decade in the state legislature.

Edwards led in early August polls in a Republican-friendly district where then-President Donald Trump beat Biden by 17 percentage points in 2020. Whoever gets the GOP nomination will be all but assured of completing the unexpired term of Rep. Chris Stewart (R), who’s resigning Sept. 15 because of his wife’s ill health.

Businessman Bruce Hough has been reminding fellow Republicans that he’s been true to the GOP brand while Edwards couldn’t bring herself to vote for Trump‘s re-election.

“I’ve done something that neither of my opponents have done: I voted for Donald Trump in 2016 and 2020,” Hough said at an Aug. 15 debate. “I had the courage to vote for him two times.”

Sources: Candidates’ websites and social media
Republicans Becky Edwards, Celeste Maloy, and Bruce Hough are on the special election primary ballot as Utah prepares to fill a soon-to-be-vacant seat in Congress.

Hough is a longtime Republican Party official whose celebrity-dancer children Julianne and Derek are better-known than he is. Also competing for the GOP nomination is Celeste Maloy, who was Stewart’s legislative counsel.

Talking About Trump Is a Challenge in Special Congress Election

All three have attacked the Biden administration’s economic policies and advocated for fiscal restraint, Utah’s water supply, and more control of public lands to a state where the federal government owns about two-thirds of the land, including the Grand Staircase-Escalante national monument President Biden redesignated after Trump shrank its boundaries.

Edwards’ vote for Biden, while unpopular, isn’t necessarily politically fatal because state Republicans aren’t reflexively pro-Trump.

Gov. Spencer Cox (R) has said Trump can’t win the 2024 election. Sen. Mitt Romney (R) twice voted to remove Trump from office. The ex-president badly lost the 2016 Utah Republican caucus to Sen. Ted Cruz(R-Texas) and then won just 46% of the state’s general-election vote, as Utah-born former CIA officer Evan McMullin siphoned anti-Trump Republicans as an alternative independent candidate.

“There is an audience in Utah for ‘not Trump’ as a candidate,” Mary Weaver Bennett, director of the Michael O. Leavitt Center for Politics and Public Service at Southern Utah University, said in an interview. “It cuts both ways, really. There’s a segment of the population for which that would be an advantage and a segment of the population for which that would be not an advantage.”

Previous Races

Edwards has residual name recognition from winning five state House elections and then opposing Lee in a GOP primary just 14 months ago. Though she lost 62%-30%, Edwards built an infrastructure of supporters who are knocking on voters’ doors after helping her collect the 7,000 signatures of registered Republicans needed to qualify for the ballot.

“Between the time that she served in the House and then the time that she spent campaigning for the Senate race, she’s got excellent name ID, and that’s really benefited us quite a bit across the district,” Chelsea Robarge Fife, Edwards’ spokeswoman, said in an interview.

Edwards also topped the field in total campaign receipts ($679,000, including a $300,000 candidate loan) and cash-on-hand ($228,000) as of Aug. 16, Federal Election Commission reports show.

Maloy brandished her ties to southern Utah, where she attended college and now lives after residing in Virginia four years working for Stewart in Washington. Southern Utah generally is more strongly conservative than northern Utah.

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Maloy’s top campaign theme is opposing “overreach” from executive-branch agencies. She’s prioritized endorsements from Stewart and former Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah), a former chair of the Natural Resources Committee that Maloy wants to join because of its jurisdiction over land and water policy.

Stewart’s backing helped Maloy win the Utah Republican Party’s endorsement at a nominating convention in June (and a berth on the primary ballot), though she lacks the self-funding ability of Edwards and Hough.

Aided by at least $350,000 in self-funding, Hough has foremost called attention to the $32.8 trillion national debt while sharpening his attacks on Edwards for acknowledging her vote for Biden in 2020, and on Maloy for failing to vote in that election and some others.

“I should have voted, I didn’t, but I will be voting for myself in this election,” Maloy said at one of 11 debates with Hough. (Edwards declined to participate.)

Maloy has called attention to Hough living in Park City, about 25 miles outside Utah’s 2nd District. Hough said he’s lived, voted, and paid taxes in the state for decades and also created jobs in the 2nd District. Members of Congress aren’t required to live in their districts.

“Where I put my head on the pillow does not define how well I serve the people in this district,” Hough said at a debate.

On Their Own

Outside groups haven’t had a major footprint in the primary. The Club for Growth, a limited-government advocacy group that opposed Edwards when she tried to unseat Lee in 2022, hasn’t intervened to attack her or try to boost Maloy or Hough.

Environmental Defense Fund Action Votes, a super-PAC that rarely intervenes in federal Republican primaries, spent about $79,000 on digital ads and mail promoting Edwards’ support for fiscal responsibility and term limits. Edwards co-led the Utah legislature’s Clean Air Caucus and sponsored a 2018 law to encourage “the responsible stewardship of natural resources and reduction of emissions.”

Two other super PACs formed weeks before the primary and haven’t yet disclosed their donors. Duty Service Honor, a pro-Maloy group, spent about $48,000, mostly on texting and radio ads. To Form A More Perfect Union PAC, which supports Hough, spent about $30,000 on radio ads — one that said Hough would be a “citizen legislator” committed to serving just three House terms, and another that referred to Maloy as “part of the DC swamp for years.”

All registered Republicans in the district received a ballot through the mail. Ballots must be postmarked on or before Tuesday or placed in a drop box before 8 p.m. Utah time election day (10 p.m. Washington time). Voters also can cast ballots in person.

The winner of the primary will be favored in the Nov. 21 special general election against Democratic state Sen. Kathleen Riebe. According to the Center for American Women and Politics, Edwards or Maloy as the Republican nominee would set up Utah’s first House race since 1994 with women as both major-party nominees.

To contact the reporter on this story: Greg Giroux in Washington at ggiroux@bgov.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Katherine Rizzo at krizzo@bgov.com; Robin Meszoly at rmeszoly@bgov.com

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