Saturday’s Republican primary debate in St. George saw greater confrontation between 2nd Congressional District candidates Celeste Maloy and Bruce Hough as they jockeyed to highlight their conservative credentials and navigate the divides in today’s GOP.

The debate was the second of 10 that will take place prior to the Sept. 5 GOP primary election to replace Rep. Chris Stewart. Becky Edwards, the only other Republican candidate to qualify for the primary, was invited to the debate by GOP convention winner Maloy but did not attend.

Edwards’ campaign has said the candidate would not attend any of her “opponent’s campaign events.” Edwards held a meet-the-candidate event in Sugarhouse at the same time as the debate.

“I’m really disappointed that Becky’s not here,” said Maloy, who scheduled the debates with county Republican parties and with the approval of the state Republican party. “There are three of us in the race. And I really think it’s important for all of us to answer questions.”

The proceedings of Saturday’s debate in southern Utah were noted for the heightened tension compared to the cordial and conversational debate that happened Friday in the other population hub of the district, Davis County.

Hough criticized Maloy for not voting in the last two presidential elections and for her background as an attorney. Maloy rebuffed the attacks by arguing that her convention win and public service resume make her a better fit for the needs of the district.

The room, overflowing with close to 200 attendees, many of which were fanning themselves under the heat, got a little hotter when the candidates were quizzed on some of the most contentious issues in today’s GOP. One of those issues discussed was the legitimacy of the 2020 presidential election and whether the current president should be impeached.

The debate was hosted by the Washington County Republican Party at the county school district building and questions were moderated by popular St. George radio host Andy Griffin and Utah GOP secretary Stafford Palmieri.

Candidates were give one minute each to respond to questions from the moderator, with an optional 30 seconds at the end to elaborate. The final 20 minutes of the hour-long debate saw close to a dozen 2nd District voters ask questions representing the concerns of the party’s base.

One such resident asked the candidates to answer with “yes” or “no” as to whether President Joe Biden was the “legally and lawfully” elected president of the United States.

Maloy’s response to the question was unequivocal.

“I do. And I know a lot of you aren’t going to like that answer, but I think we need to be very careful when we tell people that their votes don’t matter because if people stop voting that’s one way to make sure we lose,” Maloy said.

Hough concurred, saying that the process outlined in the Constitution had been followed to certify the election in Biden’s favor, but then added some qualifications.

“Now, were there thumbs on the scale of that, by the media and by three letter agencies in Washington D.C.? Of course there was. Was there complete, ridiculous changes in voting laws during that time period, especially Pennsylvania, during that time? Absolutely. We need to strengthen our electoral processes,” Hough said.

In a question that elicited the loudest applause and cheers of the night, an audience member asked the candidates if they would vote to impeach Biden for alleged corruption over his son, Hunter Biden’s, business dealings in Ukraine and Russia.

Hough said he would have to wait to see the facts, but echoed a complaint heard through Saturday’s and Friday’s proceedings.

“We need to have due process and the law needs to be administered equally. We have not seen that. We have seen a complete bias in the way the (Department of Justice) has handled cases and ignored cases,” Hough said, referencing the lack of charges brought against Hillary Clinton for 2016 allegations.

Maloy repeated a claim made Friday night, that both Trump impeachments had been “political gimmicks,” but then said Republicans needed to keep the high moral ground.

“We need to break that cycle,” she said. “(Impeachment) should be used to actually remove someone who’s guilty of high crimes and misdemeanors and not to prove a political point.”

Candidates spent the majority of the debate proposing various policy solutions to issues as far ranging as fentanyl being trafficked over the border by Mexican cartels and “wokeism” infiltrating the nation’s institutions of higher education.

However, the distinctions between the candidates became most clear when they attempted to persuade the audience of their qualifications for serving in Congress.

Hough, who has spent the last forty years as a serial entrepreneur, starting successful companies in satellite communications and nutritional supplements, said that Congress needs the practical approach of a businessman.

“I think There are plenty of lawyers (in Congress). I think that what we need is someone who has signed both sides of a pay check, who have started businesses, who have grown businesses, who have created employment opportunities, who understand that that’s what drives the economy that can help us prosper as a nation,” Hough said.

Maloy, who went to BYU law school and served as county attorney in southern Utah before working as Congressman Stewart’s chief legal counsel for four years, said it was precisely her background as a lawyer advocating on behalf of southern Utah that made her the more prepared of the two.

“Alright, let’s talk experience,” she said. “I’ve spent my entire adult life living in and working for the 2nd Congressional District.”

She continued: “That’s really good experience. I think that qualifies me for the job. I am an attorney and I think knowing the law is a good thing when you’re working in a lawmaking body.”

The closing statements from both candidates again feature attacks on the other’s background.

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Hough brought up the controversy over Maloy’s voter registration and voting record, saying she was complicit in the Biden administration’s failures because she had not voted in the last presidential election.

Maloy said it was time for southern Utah to have its own representation in Congress, referring to Hough’s Park City residence, and challenged audience members to visit her website to see her more than 60 endorsements from local leaders, including her former boss, Stewart.

There will be eight more debates over the next week and a half, culminating with a televised debate hosted by KSL and moderated by Boyd Matheson.

The special primary election between Hough, Maloy and Edwards will be held Sept. 5. The special general election, which will feature nominees from most of Utah’s registered political parties, will be Nov. 21.

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