Ahead of this Saturday’s Utah Republican Party convention to select a nominee to run for retiring Rep. Chris Stewart’s 2nd Congressional District seat, several experts — including former congressman Jason Chaffetz — weighed in on the race.

The convention will feature 12 Republican candidates,  eight of whom are relying completely on the convention process and their ability to woo the district’s almost 1,000 delegates. The rest of the candidates will both participate in the convention and try to gather 7,000 signatures by July 5 to make it on the primary ballot. 

Candidates running for the Republican ticket include former Utah House Speaker and candidate for governor Greg Hughes, former state lawmaker and U.S. Senate candidate Becky Edwards, Stewart’s chief legal counsel Celeste Maloy, who he endorsed, and Utah Republican Party Vice Chairman Jordan Hess. 

Coming only 25 days after news first broke that Stewart would be resigning, the Utah GOP’s convention system will likely play an outsized role in determining who is on the ballot for the Sept. 5 special primary election and Nov. 21 special general election. 

And with such abrupt time constraints placed on the Republican candidates, it could be that the race to replace Stewart will be decided before the week is over. 

Convention vs. primary 

According to Jason Perry, director of the Hinckley Institute of Politics at the University of Utah, a candidate’s choice to gather signatures is a message in itself to convention delegates. The convention process is viewed as the party-loyal route, with many delegates seeing a reliance on signature gathering as an immediate “disqualification,” Perry said. 

This might explain why more conservative candidates, like Hughes, are relying fully on the convention process, while more moderate candidates, like Edwards, are making a big push to gather signatures and force a primary election.

This approach was highlighted in 2017, the last time Utah Republican voters participated in a special election to replace outgoing congressman Chaffetz, who represented Utah’s 3rd District. In that year’s special GOP convention, Rep. John Curtis came in fifth in the first round of voting and was eliminated before the final round. However, Curtis had gathered enough signatures to participate in the primary election, where he beat his nearest competitor by 10%. 

However, Chaffetz believes it is unlikely a convention workaround will help any moderate candidates this year. 

“I don’t think Becky Edwards has even an ounce of a chance,” Chaffetz said in a phone call with the Deseret News. “Greg Hughes is certainly a well-known voice. I would assume that he’s the odds-on favorite, but you never know in special elections.”

Perry also said Hughes likely carries an advantage coming into Saturday’s convention, having formed a relationship with many of the delegates during past campaigns and having a strong name ID as a longtime state lawmaker. But Perry, as did BYU professor Kelly Patterson and Chaffetz, emphasized that Stewart’s endorsement of his chief legal counsel Celeste Maloy should not be overlooked and could have an impact on delegates’ perception of her, despite being relatively unknown. 

Other candidates to watch for, according to Perry, are Kathleen Anderson and Bruce Hough, the former having worked within and adjacent to the Utah Republican Party for several years and the latter serving on the Republican National Committee as well as having personal wealth to draw on for a signature-gathering campaign. 

The fact remains, however, that Republican candidates favored by the convention are often very different from those that succeed in the primary. 

“It’s just a different set of messages that matter to delegates than it does to your average Republican primary voter,” said Patterson, who is also a senior scholar at the Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy at BYU.

Convention delegates tend to be wealthier, more educated and more ideologically conservative, Patterson said. “That’s one of the tensions that our electoral system here in Utah produces — people have an eye on the convention, but also an eye on the primary and what you say to get you through the convention may not be as popular in a primary.”

A Republican’s race to lose?

Although several parties will be on the ballot this fall, special attention will be given to the GOP convention because of the nature of the open seat — in 2022, Stewart beat his Democratic challenger for reelection 60% to 34%, and in 2020 Trump won the district, which has a partisan voting index of +11 for Republicans, by similar margins.

“I don’t think there’s any doubt it’ll be a Republican who wins the general election in November,” said Patterson. 

A total of 22 candidates filed with the lieutenant governor’s office to enter the race before the June 14 deadline, including 13 Republicans (one of whom — Remy Bubba Kush — did not file with the Utah GOP and so cannot participate in the convention), three Democrats and six others who are running as members of the United Utah, Libertarian or Constitution parties or are unaffiliated. Each party-affiliated candidate is required to pass through an official convention process, according to Utah law

The Utah Democratic Party will hold a virtual nominating convention on June 28. Before a ranked-choice vote is taken, the three Democratic candidates, which include Utah state Sen. Kathleen Riebe, will be given the opportunity to speak before the district’s 600 delegates over video call.

The Constitution Party of Utah will hold its nominating convention on July 1, the United Utah Party on June 27 and the Utah Libertarian Party on June 24, the same day as the Utah GOP’s nominating convention. 

Unaffiliated candidates must gather 300 signatures from registered voters, in addition to declaring candidacy during the filing period, to make it to the general election — a low bar, but one that signals the value of having a party endorsement next to one’s name. 

State statute requires that no more than one nominee emerge from party conventions in a special election, while in a normal election year two candidates may advance to a primary if neither secures more than 60% of delegate votes, according to Utah Republican Party Chairman Rob Axson. 

This is a common occurrence — in 2022, Reps. Blake Moore of Utah’s 1st Congressional District and Curtis both came in second place in the nominating convention but were then able to advance from the convention to the primary and general elections where they won handily. 

Several Republican candidates have said they will not try to gather signatures and are pinning their hopes on winning at the convention. 

“Eight of them have put their fates entirely in the hands of these delegates, and only one will survive the weekend,” said Perry. “So a lot is riding on this weekend and a lot is riding on whether or not these other candidates can in fact get their signatures in time.”

Perry added that if no candidate is able to gather a sufficient number of signatures to be placed on the primary ballot before the July 5 deadline, then the winner of Saturday’s convention will advance unopposed to the general election.

And reaching the signature threshold will be no easy task, Patterson said, explaining how signature gathering adds immensely to the already expensive and time consuming process of staffing and planning a campaign. 

“7,000 signatures implies the ability to grab a whole bunch of volunteers and get them out working with as many people as those volunteers possibly know to gather the signatures — or to have enough money on hand, or to raise enough money quickly, so that you could hire a signature gatherer,” he said. 

To succeed in such a short time frame candidates will either need significant rapport with the delegates or the resources to gather thousands of signatures in a matter of weeks, turning the process into even more of what might be called “an inside game,” Patterson said, favoring those with a long history in state politics and a deep pocketbook. 

But an inside game, with an emphasis on delegate choice, is exactly how it’s supposed to be, according to party chair Axson. 

“That’s the benefit of having delegates and the benefit of the caucus convention system. This is the Republican nominee and we have our process that is fair and transparent and available to any candidate,” he said. 

Other Republican candidates include: 

  • R. Quin Denning, the founder of Denning Construction and Impact Mobile Apps who ran unsuccessfully for a seat in the Utah House of Representatives in 2022.
  • Henry Christian Eyring, an assistant professor of business administration at Duke University and grandson of President Henry B. Eyring of the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
  • Scott Allen Hatfield, a control point operator at the Utah Department of Corrections and a Master of Public Administration student at Utah Valley University.
  • Bill Hoster, the mayor of Leeds, Washington County.
  • Ty Jensen, a self-described political commentator who ran for Stewart’s seat in 2020 and ran as a write-in candidate in the 2018 Senate election.
  • Scott Reber, a real estate business owner who has spent 10 years working in Washington, D.C., as a policy adviser.

Saturday’s Republican convention will be held at Delta High School. You can read our coverage of Tuesday’s debate here and Thursday’s debate here. If there are candidates who meet the signature-gathering requirement, a special primary election will be held Sept. 5, and the special general election will be held Nov. 21.