What to know in Utah’s special House election

What to know in Utah’s special House election
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Voters in Utah’s 2nd Congressional District will cast their ballots Tuesday to decide who fills the only current U.S. House vacancy, in a special election just days ahead of Thanksgiving.

The House has been down one member since Rep. Chris Stewart (R-Utah) resigned from Congress in September after six terms in the lower chamber, citing health concerns for his wife.

Now, Democratic state Sen. Kathleen Riebe and Republican Celeste Maloy, a former Stewart staffer, are vying to succeed him in the state’s special election and bring the House back up to a full 435.

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The solidly red district isn’t expected to see a major upset in the contest, but voter turnout and the breakdown of the ultimate results could reveal new insights about the Beehive State.

“I think the election results will be important for telling us something about how competitive this district really could end up being,” said Damon Cann, head of Utah State University’s Department of Political Science.

Maloy, who worked for Stewart as his district’s chief legal counsel and has the ex-lawmaker’s endorsement to replace him, won the Republican primary in September to secure the nomination, beating out businessman Bruce Hough and former state Rep. Becky Edwards in a three-way contest.

Maloy has the advantage of running with a connection to Stewart in the solidly red state, but she’s also been saddled with some scrutiny over her status as an inactive voter when she launched her campaign — she did not cast a ballot in the 2020 or 2022 elections, according to reporting from The Salt Lake Tribune.

The district, which spans a swath of the western and southern parts of the state, plus northern Salt Lake City, is expected to be tough for Democrats to take.

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But even if Riebe doesn’t pull off a surprise win in the House race, a strong showing from the Democrat could give the party more momentum in the state, Cann said.

“A lot of the presumption is that this is just going to be another Republican win in the second district,” he said. “The question becomes — If this is a little bit closer than expected: With a little more effort, with a little bit better funding and a little better support, would this become the seat to contest?”

Stewart won the seat back in 2012 from Democrat Jim Matheson, who had held the slot since 2000.

In last November’s midterms, Stewart sailed to reelection, fending off a Democratic challenger by roughly 25 percentage points. Utah’s other three House seats are also held by Republican lawmakers, as are the state’s two seats in the Senate.

Former President Trump won the state handily in 2016 and 2020. The nonpartisan election handicapper Cook Political Report gives the specific district a Partisan Voting Index, which measures how districts individually perform during presidential elections, of R+11.

If Maloy wins, it’s a “stay-the-course” signal from voters, as the Republican is expected to “advocate for similar policies and bring a similar set of interests” as her former boss, Cann added. 

The Tuesday election comes two weeks after Republican candidates lost several key contests in the 2023 off-year elections, sandwiched between last year’s midterms — also a successful night for Democrats — and next year’s presidential election.

Democrats won big in states like Kentucky, Virginia and Ohio, and the losses prompted discord on the GOP’s third debate stage in Miami just a day after the results came in. Some candidates expressed frustration with the party’s record over the past several cycles.

Nathaniel Rakich, a senior elections analyst at FiveThirtyEight, noted in an analysis that Democrats have also been doing “unusually well” in special elections and suggested Utah Republicans “could get a bit of a scare” on Tuesday if that strength continues.

Rakich noted a Lighthouse Research poll released in early October that found Maloy leading by just 9 points among registered voters in the state.

But Maloy has the fundraising edge. She brought in nearly $590,000 between the start of April and the end of October, according to Federal Election Commission (FEC) filings  — while Riebe has brought in nearly $300,000.

“Over the last 5 months since this race began, Democrats across the state have been motivated and inspired by the incredibly strong grassroots campaign Sen. Riebe is running, promoting an agenda that puts freedom first for Utahns,” said Utah Democrats spokesperson Ben Anderson.

“No matter the outcome” of the Tuesday contest, Anderson said, the state party is confident the final results will reflect how Riebe’s message has been “resonating strongly with voters of all political affiliations.”

Riebe said in a statement that “as I’ve traveled the district, voters are ready for a change — and I trust in their choice.”

The Hill has also reached out to the Utah GOP for comment.

Jordan Giles, a spokesperson for Maloy’s campaign, told the Hill the Republican candidate’s “conservative message of fighting federal overreach and getting spending under control has connected with voters” and said he expects “we will see the fruits of those efforts on election night.”

The winner of the Beehive State’s special election Tuesday will join Utah GOP Reps. Blake Moore, John Curtis and Burgess Owens.

Stewart is the second Utah congressman in the last six years to leave office before their term expired, according to The Associated Press. In 2017, Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R) resigned after nine years in office, triggering a special election. Curtis won the off-year race to replace him, and then secured his first full term in the 2018 midterms.

The Utah polls are set to close at 10 p.m. Eastern on Tuesday.

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