Politicos have been enjoying a wonderful summer diversion — a special election in the 2nd Congressional District. The GOP primary is less than a month away, and mail-in ballots go out in just a few days. The GOP campaign featuring candidates Celeste Maloy, Becky Edwards and Bruce Hough is well underway.

What are politicos and veteran observers saying about the race — who is leading, who has been brilliant and who has made mistakes?

Pignanelli: “In politics and chess, players make strategic decisions that put them ahead of competitors and to cause opponents setbacks that deviate from the objective to win the game.” — Receto Politico  

The Republican special election primary is a three-way chess match. At the beginning of the contest, the triumvirate candidates were equally matched with advantages and disadvantages. Thus, clever offensive and defensive strategies will determine the ultimate winner.

Edwards garnered her signatures through an incredible volunteer effort. Hough demonstrated he has the resources, and willingness to use them, to obtain signatures. Maloy understands convention delegates and was awarded ballot placement. These achievements demonstrate all are competitive. 

Several polls differ as to which candidates are ahead by just a few points. But all of the surveys reveal a large undecided voter block anywhere from 40% to 55%. No one is the undisputed leader.

The current debates are providing media immediate attention to Hough and Maloy. Questions abound whether Edward’s refusal to participate in the debates is a dangerous or smart ploy. Yet, she is on the air with television commercials.

Various chess moves are now being utilized to capture pieces and defend respective bases. Triangular politics has never been so interesting.

Increased tension at 2nd GOP primary debate
Bruce Hough, Celeste Maloy tout experience at GOP primary debate; Becky Edwards doesn’t attend

Webb: As I’ve said previously, I like all these candidates. All three are well qualified. Any of them would represent the district well.

A special election primary in an off-year is bound to be very low turnout. Therefore, the winner will be the candidate who can most effectively target with persuasive messaging those who will actually vote. In such a short campaign, it makes no sense to waste time trying to convert people who don’t vote, or to try to bring in new voters. The winner will focus intensely on active voters.

This requires lots of one-on-one and small group contact with GOP activists, who are certain voters. That’s why I think it was a mistake for Edwards to decline to participate in a dozen debates held all across the district. These debates, initiated by candidate Maloy, are being hosted in many cases by county GOP leaders and are covered by local media. Those attending and paying attention are party stalwarts — exactly the people the campaigns must reach.

This campaign requires massive grassroots organizing and effective get-out-the-vote efforts. It is a mostly behind-the-scenes campaign, deploying highly targeted social media and direct mail, personal phone calls, word-of-mouth, neighbor-to-neighbor contact and effective use of GOP influencers. It is very hard work, requiring discipline, focus and long hours. The winner will definitely earn the victory.

Hough has decades of experience in business and in the GOP, and plenty of money for a strong campaign. Edwards also has significant resources, was an effective Utah legislator, and is running hard. Maloy has excellent experience as a congressional staffer and has won the endorsement of her boss, retiring incumbent Chris Stewart. She also was the surprise favorite of GOP delegates. 

Although only a fourth of the state will be eligible to vote, all Utahns will experience the flavor of the battle. What should be expected from the Republican contenders in the next several weeks?

Pignanelli: Because many voters are undecided, this will be a contest of the most compelling messages. Hough can utilize his unique background of a successful businessperson. Maloy will press her experience in helping Chris Stewart on several high-profile conservative fronts. Edwards will parlay her record in the Utah House as required expertise for Congress. But these will not be enough to move the needle. An emotional tug is needed.

For example, Hough can claim that he is the only candidate who voted for the Republican presidential nominee in 2020 (Maloy did not vote and Edwards selected Joe Biden) and is best suited to confront a liberal administration. Maloy and Edwards will need equally compelling arguments beyond their credentials.

Mercifully, the election season is short, so the bombardment of commercials will be limited.

Webb: All three are reasonable conservatives without a lot of disagreement on basic issues. So they will try to differentiate themselves in other ways. Trump-world will, unfortunately, play a role as many party activists will only support a candidate who is completely loyal to Trump, while others will want someone more independent.

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Will national pundits offer any perspectives?

Pignanelli: National media are covering the race with earnest interest. The issues resonating with Utah Republicans this fall will establish issues for contests in other states and the presidential debates.

Webb: Special elections are closely watched nationally for any signs or clues about the mood of the electorate and anything that might be relevant to the big elections next year. National pundits will especially monitor how much the Trump circus influences this election.

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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