Utah’s special election to replace retiring Rep. Chris Stewart holds national significance, given the narrow Republican majority in the House and Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s tenuous hold on his conference, experts told Deseret News.

The special election to fill Stewart’s 2nd Congressional District seat is expected to be the only special election to take place in a red district this year and will be the first since McCarthy and his aligned Congressional Leadership Fund PAC agreed not to get involved in any open primary election for a safe Republican seat. 

The deal was made as part of McCarthy’s protracted, but successful, bid for the speakership in January, which included a number of concessions made to placate the House Freedom Caucus.

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A spokesperson for the Congressional Leadership Fund confirmed with the Deseret News that “as Utah is considered safe Republican territory, it’s unlikely to see the Congressional Leadership Fund participate in its races.”

While McCarthy’s hands may be tied in regards to influencing Utah’s special election, experts say he and other Republican leaders in the House will be watching the race closely, likely hoping that a certain type of candidate will emerge as the winner. 

“Leadership will be keenly honed in on this race,” former Utah congressman Jason Chaffetz said in a phone call with the Deseret News. “They want somebody they can work with, and when the votes are close, go get their vote. With such a slim majority this is even more pivotal to how votes will ultimately go.” 

Chaffetz, who represented Utah’s 3rd Congressional District from 2009 to 2017, when his own resignation prompted a special election, mentioned the pressure that Stewart’s replacement will feel to toe the party line. But, he said, “At the end of the day, you also have to recognize that you work for the people of Utah and the 2nd Congressional District, not for leadership and not for anybody else. So, that’s why this vote is so important.”

More than anything, McCarthy will want the seat to be filled quickly to bring his majority up from nine to 10 seats, according to Jason Perry, director of the Hinckley Institute of Politics at the University of Utah.

“His interest is, one, that it’s a Republican, and two, that the Republican comes quickly,” Perry said, “because the issues before Congress are significant and he wants to keep his majority as large as he can.”

While there is little doubt that the winner of the special election will be a Republican, whether that candidate will demonstrate the same willingness to work with House leadership as Stewart is still unknown, said BYU political science Prof. Kelly Patterson. 

“The real question is, ‘Is the person who emerges from the 2nd Congressional District seen more as somebody who is more aligned with the Freedom Caucus, which is sort of the group that gives Speaker McCarthy fits, versus someone who’s seen as a more mainstream Republican,” Patterson said. 

However, Patterson, who is also a senior scholar at the Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy at BYU, said that regardless of tone or rhetoric during campaigns, newly elected members of Congress are pulled in certain directions by the House Speaker’s “strong center of gravity.” 

Patterson said it is also important to keep in mind what Utah loses with the resignation of Stewart, who is the most senior member of Utah’s delegation to the House, where he sits on the powerful intelligence and appropriations committees. 

“Immediately you lose seniority and influence,” Patterson said. “And it takes time for a new representative to build relationships, gain the trust of leadership in order to move into those exclusive committee assignments. And it’s not to say that the person who emerges won’t be competent, it’s just they’re starting over.”

Chaffetz made a similar point, saying that Stewart will be “sorely missed … being in critical roles such as he was.” 

“Chris Stewart understood Utah, but he had established relationships for more than ten years. And having the relationships is really important when crafting legislation,” Chaffetz said. “I’m sure whoever wins will represent Utah well, but it’s going to take a while to figure out how it actually works back there.”

In Tuesday’s and Thursday’s GOP debates, the 11 candidates present tried to convince delegates that they have the experience necessary to hit the ground running as a freshman member of Congress entering office partway through a term. 

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Both Greg Hughes and Becky Edwards spent a decade or more in the Utah House of Representatives, with Hughes serving as House speaker from 2015 to 2018, and Edwards as chair of the Economic Development and Workforce Services Committee from 2013 to 2016. 

During Thursday’s debate in St. George, Celeste Maloy said she is familiar with the 2nd Congressional District, having worked as Stewart’s chief legal counsel for the last four years and as an attorney in Washington County before that. Stewart endorsed Maloy on Tuesday, saying she is “the one person in the race I know for certain is ready to serve on day one.”

Bruce Hough, who serves on the Republican National Committee and is the cofounder of Nutraceutical Corporation, held up his decades of experience with Republican politics, including two terms as chairman of the Utah GOP. Meanwhile, Scott Reber said he was the only candidate to have worked in both the House and the Senate as a policy adviser. 

Former vice chairman of the Utah Republican Party Jordan Hess cited his experience as the director of coalition building at the conservative Heritage Foundation, in addition to his work as Sen. Mike Lee’s reelection campaign manager and a policy adviser to prominent conservatives like Sens. Ted Cruz and Rand Paul, as reasons why he was qualified to take Stewart’s place.

The other Republican candidates include: 

  • Kathleen Anderson, the former communications director for the Utah Republican Party and a previous congressional candidate.
  • 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 a business consultant in Utah. 
  • 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, and retired business executive.
  • 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.
Will Saturday’s GOP convention determine who replaces Rep. Chris Stewart?

Saturday’s Republican convention will be held at Delta High School. 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.