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Solidly Republican Utah is getting a diverse array of special election options as it moves toward filling a soon-to-be-vacant seat in Congress.
Thirteen Republicans are vying for a place on the primary election ballot, seeking to succeed Rep. Chris Stewart (R), who’s resigning effective Sept. 15 because of his wife’s health.
His 2nd District is so GOP-tilting that the Sept. 5 Republican primary is the race to watch as candidates test which messages resonate with Republicans — and perhaps learn if there are repercussions for trying to avoid questions about former President Donald Trump.
“When you’re running a primary, you’re not sure in the crowd how pro-Trump or how upset with Trump those Republicans are,” said Leah Murray, the director of the Walker Institute of Politics & Public Service at Weber State University in Ogden, Utah. “So I think they’re going to try to thread the needle without talking about it.”
Sept. 5 primaries in Utah and Rhode Island will be the first congressional elections following Trump’s indictment.
In Rhode Island, the Democratic primary will be the one most scrutinized, the opposite of Utah, where the seat opening up is in a district that backed Trump over President Joe Biden by 17 percentage points in 2020, according to data compiled by Bloomberg Government.
Voters there favored Sen. Mike Lee (R) over independent Evan McMullin by 11 points in the 2022 Senate election.
Utah’s leading GOP voices are “kind of all over the place” on the topic of Trump, Murray said. Lee, the state’s senior senator, is a Trump critic-turned-ally. Sen. Mitt Romney voted twice to remove Trump from office, and Utah Gov. Spencer Cox is a big fan of Sen. Tim Scott (S.C.), who’s challenging Trump for the presidential nomination. Another challenger, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, was the keynote speaker at the Utah Republican Party’s annual organizing convention in April at the invitation of state party officials.
The GOP hopefuls who met Utah’s Wednesday filing deadline include:
- A former high-ranking office-holder who took Donald Trump seriously before other Republicans fell into lockstep in 2016;
- A Republican who voted for a Democrat rather than help keep Trump in the White House;
- A congressional attorney who wants to be her boss’s replacement; and
- A Republican National Committee member whose kids have a higher profile than he does.
Candidate Greg Hughes was Utah’s House speaker when he endorsed Trump in March 2016, a time when Trump’s presidential candidacy faced opposition from Utah Republicans including Lee and Romney. McMullin, a Utah-born former CIA officer, opposed Trump as an independent conservative alternative in the 2016 election and peeled off 22% of the general election vote in Utah, holding Trump to 46%.
Trump “sticks up for the little guy and gal, and I’m proud to state it,” Hughes said during his unsuccessful 2020 campaign for Utah governor, when he praised Trump for shrinking the boundaries of Utah national monuments including the Grand Staircase-Escalante monument in the southern part of the 2nd District. Hughes’s campaign didn’t respond to a request for comment about his congressional candidacy.
Though he placed third in the 2020 Republican primary behind winner Cox and runner-up Jon Huntsman, Hughes notably carried some of the counties in the 2nd Congressional District.
Among his rivals are Celeste Maloy, who’s Stewart’s legislative counsel, and Jordan Hess, who just resigned as Utah Republican Party vice chair. Hess previously worked for Lee and the Heritage Foundation, credentials that could help in the party nominating convention, which tends to draw the most ideologically fervent partisans.
Another candidate with a Washington connection is Bruce Hough, a Republican National Committee member. The former Utah Republican Party chairman is the father of “Dancing with the Stars” performers Julianne and Derek Hough.
Former state Rep. Becky Edwards stands out in the field of candidates in part for acknowledging she voted for Joe Biden over Trump in the 2020 general election.
Edwards, who praised ex-Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) for her work as vice chair of the Jan. 6 select committee, ran against Lee in the 2022 Republican Senate primary, losing 62%-30%.
When asked about Trump in an interview, she said Utah voters “want to just move forward.”
She’s emphasizing her 10 years in the Utah House, where Edwards led the economic development committee, and her work as a social worker and marriage and family therapist. “That ability to find common ground is something that’s embedded in my background,” she said.
Not all of the candidates who filed will be on the primary ballot. Only the June 24 convention victor, plus anyone who can submit 7,000 signatures of registered Republican voters in the district by July 5, will advance.
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Hughes, Maloy, and Hess are among the eight Republicans who are seeking the nomination at the convention only and not attempting to qualify using the signature-gathering process as a fallback option. Edwards and Hough will participate at the convention but are also collecting signatures, which is how Edwards qualified for the 2022 Republican Senate primary to oppose Lee.
The district’s population centers include overwhelmingly Republican Washington County in and around St. George in the southwestern corner of the state, a strongly Democratic portion of Salt Lake County and a Republican-friendly section of Davis County. The district’s rural areas in the 300 miles between St. George and metropolitan Salt Lake City are heavily Republican.
“This is a very Republican seat,” Murray said.
Three Democrats including state Sen. Kathleen Riebe will compete for the Democratic nomination at a virtual convention on June 28. Six third-party or unaffiliated candidates also submitted declarations of candidacy by Wednesday’s deadline.
To contact the reporter on this story: Greg Giroux in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org