Becky Edwards submitted her first batch of signatures Thursday morning, coming in ahead of fellow Republican candidate Bruce Hough as the two seek to challenge GOP convention winner Celeste Maloy in a special primary election to replace retiring Rep. Chris Stewart.

With just over 7,000 signatures, Edwards, a former state lawmaker and U.S. Senate candidate, barely clears the threshold required for submitting signatures to the Utah lieutenant governor’s office. The next step is a verification process, as signatures will be compared to those of registered Republicans on file and redundant signatures are accounted for.

Though a portion of the signatures are likely to be discarded — 20%-30% is a good rule of thumb, according to one political consultant — this accomplishment by the Edwards campaign almost ensures that there will be a primary election to fill the 2nd District seat which will become vacant when Stewart leaves on Sept. 15.

If no candidate were to gather and submit enough valid signatures before July 5, then Maloy would advance to the special general election unopposed.

Hough’s campaign said that the Republican National Committee member and former state party chairman had gathered 6,729 signatures as of Wednesday afternoon. 

An ongoing tally of certified signatures will be updated each weekday morning at 9 a.m., excluding July 3 and 4, according to Ryan Cowley, the director of elections for Utah lieutenant governor’s office.

The office has contracted with the Davis County clerk’s office to process the signature packets, Cowley said, which will be delivered today.

Edwards’ and Hough’s rush to gather signatures to force a primary follows Maloy’s surprise nomination by delegates in Saturday’s GOP convention and subsequent controversy over whether Maloy is qualified to be the party’s nominee.   

Utah 2nd District candidate Celeste Maloy may still face a primary election for a spot in the general election to replace Rep. Chris Stewart.
Utah Congressional 2nd District candidate Celeste Maloy speaks after winning the nomination during the Utah Republican Party’s special election at Delta High School in Delta on June 24, 2023. | Ryan Sun, Deseret News

Voter registration controversy

Some delegates and candidates have openly questioned Maloy’s eligibility to run on the Republican ticket following Saturday’s nominating convention in which the Stewart-endorsed Maloy trumped former Utah House Speaker Greg Hughes, who was viewed as the front-runner. She won 52.1% to 47.9%, after five rounds of voting and after she received a last minute endorsement from third-place candidate Jordan Hess.

The complaints stem from questions about Maloy’s state voter registration. She was listed as an “inactive” Utah voter when she filed her candidacy, which, some said, meant that under Utah law and party rules she should have been disqualified from running because she was not a member of the Utah Republican Party when she entered the race.

State law says an individual cannot “file a declaration of candidacy for a registered political party of which the individual is not a member” unless the party’s bylaws permit it. The Utah Republican Party constitution states that the party will only support the election of Republican candidates and that party membership is limited to those who have registered to vote as a Republican.

Although Maloy’s voter registration in Utah had lapsed because of inactivity during the 2020 and 2022 elections when she was living in Virginia working as Stewart’s chief legal counsel, this did not affect her Republican Party affiliation in the state, according to voting records obtained by KSL NewsRadio on Wednesday. Maloy renewed her voter registration in Iron County three days after she filed for candidacy, KSL NewsRadio reported.

Hess, who was the state party’s vice chairman before resigning to run, said he thinks Maloy will remain the party’s standard bearer.

“As long as she abides by state law and party rules then she’s our nominee,” Hess told the Deseret News in a phone call. “From what I’ve read and statements I’ve heard from the Utah Republican Party, she was in compliance with both state law and party rules and therefore I don’t think she would be disqualified.”

Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson told KSL.com Wednesday that Maloy is “definitely” eligible to run and said “there is no requirement for a congressional candidate to be a registered voter” in a tweet on Tuesday.

But having already overcome the convention hurdle, and with it looking like Maloy’s campaign will not be derailed by a procedural debate, she will now likely face other Republican candidates who are collecting signatures to qualify for the primary — and they could try to make an issue out of her voter registration.

Who’s gathering signatures?

Of the 13 original candidates, four left open the option to gather signatures, including Edwards, Hough, former D.C. policy adviser Scott Reber and MPA student Scott Allen Hatfield.

Both Reber and Hatfield confirmed with the Deseret News they will not be gathering signatures. Hatfield said he would endorse Hough, saying “he’s the best fit for the district and has the best leadership skills.”

In a statement to the Deseret News, Hough expressed confidence in his campaign’s ability to make it on the primary ballot and said his traditional conservative message focused on fiscal restraint and religious freedom would appeal to Republican primary voters.

“Thousands of Republican voters desire a conservative choice in the primary. We are excited to provide them with that choice,” he said.

Hough isn’t the only one expecting to face better prospects in a primary compared to the convention. Edwards was eliminated following the third round of voting at the convention but believes she will fare better among GOP primary voters.

“We firmly believe that our message, focused on fiscal responsibility, prioritizing Utah families and businesses, and upholding a steadfast commitment to public service, will resonate even more powerfully with this wider audience,” Edwards said.

Taylor Morgan, a government affairs professional and executive director of Count My Vote, an organization largely responsible for the inclusion of a signature-gathering option in elections, said he thinks it is impressive that Hough and Edwards look like they have been able to gather the needed number of signatures considering the abbreviated timeline for the special election — three weeks, instead of the typical three months.

“In my experience, it’s virtually impossible to gather that many signatures in that little time without hiring professional signature-gathering services,” Morgan said.

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And these signature-gathering services aren’t cheap. According to Stan Lockhart, a government lobbyist and former chairman of the Utah GOP, signature-gathering companies can charge upwards of $10 per signature as they seek signatures going door to door using a list of registered Republicans.

Hough and Edwards face competing pressures as they race to qualify for the primary election, Morgan said. By submitting first, Edwards will have first claim on signatures that are repeated by the other campaign. But the campaigns will also want to exceed the 7,000 minimum signatures to account for those that will be discarded.

If Hough and Edwards make it on the primary ballot, the winner is anyone’s guess, according to Lockhart.

“I think the person who came out of convention has the advantage. But again, we’ve had many examples where the convention winner has not won the primary election,” Lockhart said.

In Utah’s last special congressional election in 2017, Rep. John Curtis was quickly eliminated during the delegate convention but was able to gather enough signatures to participate in the primary election, where he beat his nearest competitor by 10 percentage points. Other examples include former Utah Gov. Gary Herbert and Sen. Mitt Romney, who both lost their respective convention nominations before proceeding to win by large margins in their primary elections.

It all comes down to which of the three candidates — Maloy, Hough and Edwards — are able to effectively persuade a plurality of voters with their unique message, Lockhart said. “There are going to have to be issues that get people excited about a candidate. It’s all about who can get a base of support and then grow that base in two months and almost two weeks.”

If Hough or Edwards gather enough valid signatures, the Republican Party will hold a special primary election on Sept. 5. A special general election to decide who will replace Stewart will be held Nov. 21.