Pignanelli & Webb: Utah Congressman Chris Stewart recently announced he is retiring from Congress this month because of health concerns with his wife, Evie. This noble action deserves respect and compassion from all citizens. Of course, Stewart’s retirement has set the Utah political world ablaze. Your columnists enjoy watching the fires rage.

What will be the process to fill this vacancy in the U.S. House of Representatives, and what can voters expect?

”When someone whispers in my ear about running for office, it sounds like the Tabernacle Choir singing the Hallelujah Chorus!” — former Utah Congressman Wayne Owens

Open congressional seats don’t come available in Utah very often, so a very large group of ambitious Republicans and Democrats are experiencing a distinct ringing in their ears — the clarion call of service in Congress.

However, the path to winning a seat isn’t quite clear right now. The circumstances surrounding the 2017 special election to replace Jason Chaffetz when he resigned created a kerfuffle among state officials. This resulted in 2020 legislation establishing the existing process. Within seven days of receiving the letter of resignation, the governor issues a proclamation specifying special primary and general election dates. He must provide at least 21-28 days for parties to nominate a candidate or for candidates to qualify for the primary ballot through signature gathering. Without legislative action, special elections must be held in conjunction with designated scheduled elections.

Therefore, the earliest date for a special primary election this year would be the municipal election on Nov. 7, with a final special election to occur at the presidential primary election in March 2024. That would leave Utah without a fourth member of Congress for a long time, so it is likely the Legislature will take action to accelerate the process.

Politicos are predicting that after Gov. Spencer Cox receives the official letter of resignation from Stewart (likely next week), the Legislature will quickly convene a special session to alter the timeline and make other adjustments. This produces a lot of conjecture:

Will the Legislature push hard to have a quick convention and primary to insure a final election by Labor Day? Or will they stretch the process to the November municipal election? Will they succumb to pressure from activists and remove the potential for signature gathering to get on the primary ballot, meaning only party delegates would determine the nominee? (That would likely produce a gubernatorial veto.) Will they put in place a threshold requirement and a runoff in the likely event of multiple primary candidates? Might they implement a ranked choice voting procedure? Will they appropriate the money to pay the significant election costs?

A lot of uncertainty exists, but it is certain that the existing structure will be altered by lawmakers.

Rep. Chris Stewart says he’ll retire from Congress after ‘orderly transition can be ensured’
What happens in Utah when a congressman resigns?

In the 2017 special election, 21 candidates filed to replace Chaffetz. Is there similar interest in this opening, and who are leading contenders?

Incredibly, more viable prospects are considering a run this year than six years ago, especially because one does not even need to live in the district to run. In the past few days, cell phones and social media platforms have been melting from overuse as Utah politicos engaged in a feeding frenzy of promoting, and dismissing, prospects. Since we love to rummage in the gossip mill, here is a list of those who have received at least several recommendations from inside the political class.

Announced or likely Republican candidates:

State Sen. Todd Weiler enjoys a strong social media following. He was the first to announce his interest and is already preparing documents to file with the FEC and is searching for a campaign manager.

Former state Rep. Becky Edwards is beloved by moderate Republicans and has announced her intention to run.

Former House Speaker Greg Hughes performed well in many parts of the 2nd Congressional District during his 2020 gubernatorial bid. He will be a strong force if he chooses to participate.

Republican candidates receiving strong encouragement or under consideration:

Former GOP Chair and national committeeman Bruce Hough; Washington County public affairs officer Jordan Hess; businessman Brad Bonham; state Sen. Dan McCay; apparently all three Washington County commissioners are considering (Victor IversenGil AlmquistAdam Snow); GOP Chairman Robert Axson; his vice chair, Jordan Hess; Salt Lake Chamber President Derek Miller; Hinckley Institute of Politics Director Jason Perry; Attorney General Sean Reyes; former GOP Chair Carson Jorgensen; former GOP chair and gubernatorial candidate Thomas Wright; former state Rep. Sheryl Allen; former GOP chair and state Rep. Derek Brown; Salt Lake County Councilwoman Amy Winder Newton; state Sen. and former U.S. Senate candidate Mike Kennedy; former state Rep. and congressional candidate Kim Coleman. Finally, Henry Eyring, grandson of Henry B. Eyring, second counselor in the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, is receiving encouragement to consider the race.

Potential Democrats include: State Sen. Kathleen Riebe, former congressional candidates Kael Weston and Nick Mitchell. (Former Congressman Ben McAdams is not expressing interest.) Independent Senate candidate Evan McMullin is a rumored possibility.

U.S. Senate candidates Brad Wilson and Trent Staggs will not pivot to this opportunity. More prospects are likely.

What unusual results may occur in the special election?

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Currently, candidates can obtain placement on the primary ballot through selection by delegates at a convention or by gathering enough signatures. In 2017, three candidates were in the primary and there is likely to be even more in 2023. Thus, the GOP nominee may be decided by much less than a majority of primary voters.

Should the legislature decide to piggyback on the municipal election on Nov. 7, the special election could have dramatic influence on many mayoral and city council races, especially in Salt Lake City with the influx of partisan voters.

While it is likely that the winner will be well-known in political circles and enjoy a solid base to start from, remember that Congressman Blake Moore came out of nowhere to win in the 1st District against more experienced and better-known candidates.

Republican LaVarr Webb is a former journalist and a semiretired 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.

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