Most campaigns are marathons. Some are cakewalks. And others are a dead sprint.
The three remaining Republican candidates seeking to replace Rep. Chris Stewart have had less than 100 days from the time he announced his resignation to assemble a campaign, raise money, advance through the GOP convention or signature-gathering processes and make an impression on as many 2nd Congressional District voters as possible before Tuesday’s primary contest.
And each has taken a distinct approach, according to Utah-based political consultant Derek Brown, in terms of “relying on a different way to get to voters and relying on a different segment of the voting population in the Republican Party.”
Entrepreneur and party committeeman Bruce Hough has tried to clear a lane for himself as the “conservative in the race” with party-line messaging and an ad campaign critical of his opponents.
Former state lawmaker and U.S. Senate candidate Becky Edwards has branded herself as a “commonsense conservative,” leveraging established volunteers and high name recognition from her prior campaign for Senate where she was known as a more “moderate” Republican.
Former Stewart staffer and GOP convention winner Celeste Maloy has leaned on her endorsements from local leaders, including Stewart, as well as her policy prowess to make her case for increased federalism to rural Utahns.
But with a substantial portion of the district’s Republican electorate still undecided as to who they will vote for, it is unclear which strategy will attract a plurality of 2nd District Republicans to win Tuesday’s special primary election.
The practical reality of a condensed election cycle might be the most overwhelming factor in the race, despite ideological differences among candidates, Brown says, who disclosed that he has contributed to the Maloy campaign.
“People don’t have the time to really get to know the candidates,” Brown said, explaining that the only one who might benefit from this abbreviated timeline is Edwards.
“Someone who’s already got somewhat of an organization in place is going to benefit because in a sense they start at the 40-yard line,” he said.
Edwards was the first Republican to declare her candidacy, and within days of Stewart’s announcement, Edwards said she was able to mobilize an “army of volunteers” already committed to her campaign because of her Senate run last year.
With the help of over 1,000 volunteers, the Edwards campaign says it has made 30,000 in-person contacts, 50,000 phone calls and texts, handed out 20,000 flyers and organized more than 40 events over the last three months in 29 cities across the 13 counties represented in the 2nd District.
In terms of political ideology, Douglas Bennett, an associate professor of political science at Southern Utah University, says Edwards is “seeking to establish herself as something of a Republican moderate, more along the lines of Mitt Romney than Mike Lee.”
Though Edwards has an advantage when it comes to higher name recognition in the state, Maloy’s surprise win at the state party’s nominating convention at the end of June gave her “some instant name ID,” Brown said, as well as the official backing of the party.
“The ability to say that you were the person that won the convention, that does still mean something to thousands of Republicans who may not know who to vote for,” Brown said.
Maloy capitalized on the party’s support to organize 10 debates with local Republican parties in the first two weeks of August, culminating in a televised debate on KSL. While she challenged both Hough and Edwards to accept the rigorous debate schedule, only Hough accepted, going so far as to schedule his own debate in Salt Lake County to fill what he thought was a gap in Maloy’s original lineup.
Edwards did not attend any of the debates, calling them her “opponent’s campaign events.” Instead, she opted to hold her own voter outreach events in counties across the district, sometimes with several scheduled each day.
According to Bennett, Maloy’s emphasis on in-person communication with rural and southern Utah voters makes sense given that, in addition to convention-goers, these constituents tend to be more conservative than “their northern neighbors.”
While Maloy has framed herself as the underdog in this race, Bennett says, Hough has been able to draw “on the connections and name recognition he got in Republican party politics and further leverage his success in private industry” to make his case.
Hough, like Edwards and Maloy, has also traveled the state nonstop since qualifying for the primary. In addition to hosting multiple screenings of “Sound of Freedom” and meet-and-greets around the district, Hough has invested the most of any candidate in producing video and photo ads.
Thank you Davis County for attending tonight’s special showing of The Sound of Freedom. Look forward to seeing you again tomorrow in Farmington at the first scheduled #UTCD2 primary debate. #utpol #utgop #brucehoughforcongress pic.twitter.com/aFmlFAj18K— Bruce Hough (@BHough4Congress) August 4, 2023
Hough began posting ads on his social media long before any other candidate, with messages ranging from the importance of limiting the size of government to touting his business background. But beginning in August, Hough’s social media became dominated with ads aimed at Edwards for her record of voting for Democratic presidents, including most recently for President Joe Biden, and Maloy for her failure to vote in recent elections.
These ads have also been placed on Fox News television, websites and talk radio shows.
“As much as Utahns don’t like the negative ads,” Brown says, “when they are done strategically and effectively they do have an impact.”
Edwards and Maloy have also launched ad campaigns of their own, with messages appearing on TV, radio and online.
Edwards has raised the most money of any candidate, bringing in a total of $678,975 by mid-August, compared to Hough’s $538,700 and Maloy’s $307,308. Of those totals, Edwards loaned her campaign $300,000 and Hough loaned his $334,236. Maloy did not loan her campaign any money.
Edwards’ donations include $5,000 from the Republican Main Street Partnership PAC and $5,000 from The Orthopaedic PAC.
Hough’s campaign funds include maxed-out donations of $6,600 from both Kem Gardner, chairman of Gardner Company, a private commercial real estate business, and his wife, Carolyn, as well as $2,500 from the Natural Products Association PAC.
Maloy’s receipts include a $2,000 donation from the Salt Lake County Republican Party as well as $3,300 from Ally Isom, who challenged Edwards in last year’s senate primary.
While having a much smaller war chest than her opponents, Maloy has centered her campaign around a large and growing list of endorsements.
Maloy’s name first burst onto the Utah political scene after receiving Stewart’s endorsement just days before the GOP convention. And Stewart has continued to campaign for Maloy, attending some of her events in southern Utah and a campaign rally in Tooele.
Washington County, it’s time to vote!— Celeste Maloy (@CelesteMaloyUT) August 18, 2023
Having a blast with Congressman Stewart in southern Utah tonight. He has represented our district with honor, and now we need to elect a conservative who lives in CD2 to ensure a strong voice in Congress.
Get those ballots in! #utpol pic.twitter.com/XEs2DiyGFB
Her website contains a list of nearly 70 endorsements, including former Utah congressman Rob Bishop, former U.S. Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt, several state lawmakers, 10 county sheriffs, 9 mayors and 31 county commissioners.
“This long list of endorsements speaks to the fact that I am the only candidate in this race with the experience to serve the constituents in the district effectively on day 1,” Maloy told the Deseret News in a statement.
At a monthly press conference in August, Utah Gov. Spencer Cox also seemed to express his preference for Maloy, though he stressed he was not making an official endorsement.
Brown said endorsements don’t typically have much of an impact on election outcomes but said voters may give them more weight in a special election when there hasn’t been as much time to form an opinion of the candidates.
“I think that those kind of endorsements, for at least a portion of the Republicans, serve as a shorthand for who it is that they ought to seriously consider,” Brown said.
When asked about what endorsements their campaign had received, a spokesperson for the Edwards campaign said, “It’s the sacrifice of (campaign) volunteers, working tirelessly on her behalf, that represent the most significant endorsements in this race.”
A spokesperson for the Hough campaign responded, “The only endorsement we’ve sought is from the voters of the 2nd Congressional District.”
According to Brown, there are reasons to believe each candidate has done enough to win in Tuesday’s primary, and only afterward will commentators like himself be able to look back and understand what each campaign did right and wrong.
“It’ll be interesting to see which strategy pays off,” Brown said.
What should we expect for election turnout?
Adding to the uncertainty surrounding the outcome of Tuesday’s primary, is the difficulty of predicting turnout. Not only is the election being held at the end of summer vacation and during busy back-to-school schedules, it will also be the day after a long Labor Day weekend.
As of Friday morning, 24.1% of mail-in ballots had been turned in from the roughly 210,100 registered Republicans in the district, according to Utah Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson who oversees elections, with turnout sitting at 32.7% in Davis County, 21.8% in Washington County and 17.5% in Iron County.
As of Thursday morning, the county with the highest turnout was Wayne County, at 33.2%, and the county with the lowest was Tooele County, at 15.2%.
Utah’s last special congressional election in 2017 had a turnout of 40%. Typically, more than 90% of votes in Utah are cast by mail-in ballot compared to in-person voting, according to Ryan Cowley, the director of elections in Henderson’s office.
Polls for in-person voting will open at 7 a.m. on Tuesday, Sept. 5, and will close at 8 p.m. Mail-in ballots must be postmarked or submitted to a county drop box by this date to be counted.
Utahns can register to vote and vote in person on Election Day as long as they bring a photo ID and proof of residency.
The winner of Tuesday’s Republican primary election will advance to the general election on Nov. 21, where they will face off against the Democratic nominee, as well as nominees from Utah’s other registered parties.