Two women have crisscrossed the state making their pitch to 2nd Congressional District voters ahead of Tuesday’s special election. One of them will fill Rep. Chris Stewart’s vacant seat to become Utah’s next member of Congress.

Republican nominee and former Stewart staffer Celeste Maloy has drawn on her background as a public lands expert to articulate a message centered on curtailing regulatory and fiscal overreach in the federal government.

Democratic nominee and current state lawmaker Sen. Kathleen Riebe has formulated a “Freedom First” agenda focused on what she sees as the intrusion of the federal government into abortion rights and classrooms.

In addition to sharing an emphasis on removing the unwanted presence of Washington, D.C., from Utahn’s lives, both candidates have framed themselves as problem-solvers, less concerned about partisan virtue signaling than getting in the weeds on kitchen table issues like inflation, housing and rural infrastructure.

But with one poll showing a surprisingly small margin between the two candidates in what is typically classified as a ruby red district, neither Maloy nor Riebe has taken the last few weeks of their campaigns for granted, putting in the miles and scoring the endorsements to help them win the general election on Nov. 21.

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Sprinting to the finish line

An underdog win in June’s state Republican Party convention as well as a primary victory powered by strong rural support in September gave Maloy momentum going into the final stretch of the race to replace her old boss.

Beginning with Stewart’s early endorsement, Maloy has sought and won the support of nearly 70 state and local officials, structuring her campaign around one-on-one visits with community leaders.

“I said early on in this campaign that I was going to outwork everybody else, and I think I’ve made good on that promise. And I feel confident because I’m hearing a lot of positive feedback from the people I’m out talking to,” Maloy said Monday in a conversation with the Deseret News.

In the last few weeks, Maloy has kept a “grueling schedule,” according to her communications director, Jordan Giles, who said she has recently hosted “dozens and dozens” of meetings with city mayors, council members and county commissioners.

“Celeste has put tens of thousands of miles on her car,” Giles said. “If she is successful on election night, I think that’s going to be one of the reasons, because she went everywhere to talk to everybody.”

This is all in an effort to demonstrate she will be “the kind of representative that people know they can get a hold of,” Maloy said, confident that she’ll soon be at the receiving end of constituents’ phone calls from an office on Capitol Hill.

The confidence is not entirely unwarranted.

How Republican is Utah’s 2nd Congressional District?

Despite having a slightly lower partisan voting index than the state’s other three districts, Utah’s 2nd Congressional District is still considered a safe Republican seat by the National Republican Congressional Committee.

In 2022, Stewart was reelected by a 25-point margin. And in 2020, 2nd District voters chose former President Donald Trump over President Joe Biden 56% to 39 % — a margin of 17 percentage points.

But, as Riebe’s team is quick to point out, this margin appeared to have been cut in half — to 8.5% — in a recent 2nd District poll conducted by the Utah Debate Commission.

To be fair, the poll included a number of respondents who opted for a third-party candidate or were undecided but who might support a Republican in a two-way race.

However, Riebe’s campaign manager, Theo Gardner-Puschak, says these results put the Democratic candidate within striking distance of flipping the district.

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How much money have Riebe and Maloy raised?

For the last five months, Riebe has spent all her free time — when not at her full-time job as an educational technology specialist or seeing to legislative duties as a state senator — traveling to engage with voters and calling potential donors to make her case, Gardner-Puschak said.

The senator, he added, has also marshaled “thousands” of volunteers to call potential voters and send text reminders.

But one of the most significant signs of grassroots energy, according to the campaign spokesman, is Riebe’s fundraising success.

Riebe has raised upward of $350,000 in her five-month campaign, Gardner-Puschak said — more than any other Democratic congressional candidate in the state since former Rep. Ben McAdams — with around 90% of those contributions coming from individual donors.

While Riebe has received large contributions from the political arm of the centrist Blue Dog Coalition and a few labor organizations, she is clearly outgunned by Maloy in terms of super PAC support.

Of the $588,000 Maloy has raised since launching a congressional bid in June, $193,000 has come from donations of over $2,000, including donations from top House Republican leadership, while just $26,000 of her funds have come from donations of under $200.

For Riebe, the ratio is swapped: $51,000 came from donations of over $2,000 and $113,000 from donations under $200.

“I’m proud to have run this entire campaign as a full time teacher and working Utahn,” Riebe said Monday in a statement to the Deseret News. “This campaign was built off the support of individual Utahns, not corporate PAC money, and it was a joy meeting them and traveling our incredible state.”

Having spent most of their funds on ad placements before ballots were sent out in early November, Riebe’s campaign had less than $30,000 on hand with a month left in the campaign.

Looking ahead to what will likely be a reelection campaign in 2024, Maloy’s team still had around $100,000 in its war chest on Nov. 1.

Competing messages

With all of her ads placed, Maloy says her message has remained consistent over the course of several convention speeches, dozens of debates and countless interactions with voters.

“I want to use the power of the purse to address some of these issues with the executive branch. I want to keep underlining how important federalism is and reminding the federal government to stay out of issues that belong to the states. And those are messages that I think have been really resonating with voters,” Maloy said.

Throughout her campaign, Maloy has touted her experience as a soil conservationist in Beaver County, a public lands attorney in St. George and a former legal counsel in Stewart’s office, to demonstrate her policy prowess on three priorities: inflation, federal spending and bureaucratic overreach.

Riebe, on the other hand, has built her message on a career as an elementary educator and her family’s history of public service, saying she understands the concerns of working parents and the importance of keeping the government open at all costs.

While Riebe has taken a partisan stance to attack her opponent’s openness to national abortion restrictions, she has also emphasized her desire to work across the aisle, as she says she has done in the Senate minority for nearly five years.

“Congress is not functioning right now,” Gardner-Puschak said, “and Sen. Riebe is going to Congress to work across the aisle for solutions.”

Maloy and Riebe will face off, along with nominees from the state’s other registered parties, in the special general election to replace Stewart on Tuesday, Nov. 21.

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