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Opinion: Utah House delegation will soon have full voting power

In the closely divided U.S. House of Representatives, every vote matters

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The U.S. Capitol is seen on Nov. 3, 2023, in Washington.

The U.S. Capitol is seen on Friday, Nov. 3, 2023, in Washington.

Mariam Zuhaib, Associated Press

In the closely divided U.S. House of Representatives, every vote matters — especially during this tumultuous time when the House has been in chaos, while facing a long list of critical issues. The House has been short one vote — a Utah vote. But that vote will be available again after next Tuesday when 2nd Congressional District voters select a replacement for former Congressman Chris Stewart, who resigned in September. We take a look.

The contest in the 2nd District special election is between Democrat Kathleen Riebe and Republican Celeste Maloy. It is guaranteed that a woman will join Utah’s congressional delegation. Election data shows the Republican has an advantage. What are political insiders observing and conjecturing about this race?

Pignanelli: “Rural Americans are a special people. Their spirit of community inspires us all.” — Former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack   

Anyone driving through central and southern Utah this fall is confronted by Maloy’s political signs, anchored by hay bales, expressing thanks to rural Utahns. While these are quaint advertisements, there is a shrewd motive behind them.

In 2022, almost half of all the votes cast in the Second District were from counties off the Wasatch Front. The Republican nominee Chris Stewart performed well, but the dynamics this year are different, because special elections suffer from low voter turnout.

Thus, Maloy is attempting to energize her base with conservative messaging and an unprecedented appeal to a rural constituency as one of them. This strategy worked in the primary. Veteran political observers are theorizing this effort could be a tremendous advantage for her in a race that normally could be controlled by voters in Salt Lake and Davis counties. Riebe’s best counterpunch is an aggressive communications plan to construct a perception she is not a typical coastal Democrat.

A victory by Maloy guarantees new uses for hay bales beyond just food for horses and cows.

Webb: Maloy should win relatively easily. It’s a Republican district and Maloy has run a smart, if low-key, campaign. Maloy proved her mettle in the primary election, defeating a number of better-known, well-funded opponents.

In this era of saturation advertising and social media, grassroots campaigning is still extremely important and Maloy does it very well. She will dominate the rural areas of the district, overpowering the urban Democratic vote.

It will be great to have a woman back in Utah’s congressional delegation. I don’t vote on the basis of gender, but when two women emerge as the best candidates for a top Utah political position, it’s an occasion worth celebrating.

If Maloy wins, how will she fit into the ideological factions in the House? Far-right member of the Freedom Caucus? Or more moderate in the pattern of delegation members Blake Moore and John Curtis?

Pignanelli: Utahns elect congressional members with the expectation they may give fiery speeches and proclamations of a right-wing flavor. However, these representatives are required to be effective and practical in federal policy and budget deliberations. Stewart, Maloy’s mentor, was of such caliber and she is likely to follow him with other delegation members as pragmatic conservatives.

No member of the Utah delegation is a formal public adherent of the Freedom Caucus. Apparently, they meet in a pub and not a Capitol office, so that may create an additional incentive to refrain from participation with this controversial group.

Webb: Maloy is plenty conservative, but I’m confident she won’t join the small clique of right-wing obstructionists. Utah’s congressional delegation provides commonsense leadership and I believe Maloy will fit right in.

I’m glad Republicans want to tackle tough issues like debt reduction and chaos at the southern border. But they can’t ignore the reality that Democrats control the Senate and the White House. Any progress will require compromise. Blowing everything up, creating stalemate and dysfunction, will only produce more election defeats for Republicans. I think Maloy understands this dynamic.

Maloy will have an opportunity to fight for rural interests. I hope she will work to restore a more sensible balance in the federal system. That would greatly benefit her rural constituents.

What will it mean for Utah to have that fourth vote in the U.S. House?

Pignanelli: Utah always punches above its weight in the Senate and the House, regardless of partisan flavor. With the tight partisan lineup in the Congress, the winner on Nov. 21 will have influence in the respective caucus and in committees.

Webb: It is important to have a fourth Utah vote reflected in the close legislative battles being waged in the U.S. House. Maloy knows Washington and Congress very well, having worked there for several years. She won’t have a steep learning curve and can be immediately effective.

Republican LaVarr Webb is a former journalist and a semi-retired small farmer and political consultant. Email: lwebb@exoro.com. Frank Pignanelli is a Salt Lake attorney, lobbyist and political adviser who served as a Democrat in the Utah state Legislature. Email: frankp@xmission.com.