Shrewd politicos continually study and analyze election data for trends, shifts among voters and tactical successes and failures. School is never out for the political class, even for old academic misfits like us. So here are some lessons we learned from the recent 2nd Congressional District Republican special primary election.

This primary election was unusual for several reasons — no immediate front-runner, limited public polling, very compressed timeline and Election Day directly following the Labor Day holiday. This provided opportunities for candidates to utilize a variety of strategies. What are the takeaways from this three-way primary race won by Celeste Maloy?

Pignanelli: “The rural vote really showed up and showed out — which was the difference. The district is shifting. This is the first member of Congress not from the Wasatch Front.” — Boyd Matheson, The Hinckley Report

This special election did provide lessons to be learned, but it is an old and trusted curriculum. Money is important, but not the guarantee of victory. Maloy’s campaign raised less than her opponents, but maximized contributions with effective messaging that compelled her rural base.

Maloy collected high-profile endorsements. But the real value was the public support of so many local elected officials that established a personal connection between her and the voters. She leveraged these connections with city, county and legislative officeholders to promote retail political engagement.

The primary voter turnout was not as great as 2022 but more than 2017. This emphasizes that especially in special elections “it’s the voters who vote.” Targeting citizens with a track record of mailing ballots is more effective than trying to move demographics with less participation.

All these are basic instructions. But in today’s world they often get lost with the shiny toys of technology. Those who remember and use them usually prevail.

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Webb: Maloy’s win shows that retail, grassroots politics is still crucial in primary elections. Nothing can replace getting out and meeting voters one-on-one and in small groups. Maloy was able to come from being a complete unknown to likely winning a seat in Congress because she worked so hard at the grassroots level, and she leveraged other advantages.

Maloy was bolstered by a win among delegates at the GOP nominating convention. She became the favored candidate among GOP stalwarts and enjoyed the formal endorsement of the party. In addition, winning endorsements from many prominent Republicans at all levels, including her boss, incumbent Rep. Chris Stewart, bolstered her credibility and substance.

There have been plenty of examples where the convention winner/party-endorsed candidate has lost. But in those cases the party endorsed far-right, somewhat fringe candidates that moderate Republican voters rejected.

Maloy showed that the combination of winning the party’s endorsement, while also being a mainstream, non-crazy candidate, is a winning formula. 

History suggests the results of this special primary election should be studied by Gov. Spencer Cox (as he develops a strategy for his upcoming campaign), and by other candidates. What lessons can be applied in future campaigns?

Pignanelli: The U.S. Senate 2024 Republican primary could feature several candidates, especially with the retirement of Sen. Mitt Romney. Thus, the results are instructive to 2024 candidates. Personal engagement combined with direct emotional connection to congressional activities (not a media blast) is what the primary election offers as a successful recipe.

Opportunities in rural Utah continues to be a major focus of the Cox administration. This will be a valuable weapon in convention and primary contests against right-wing opposition.

For all candidates, the primary underscored that an understanding and willingness to resolve local issues is paramount. Proclamations of ideology are not enough to satisfy the voter appetite. (Another sign of a healthy democracy.)

Webb: It’s never a good idea to allow past campaigns to dictate future campaign strategies and tactics. The dynamics are always different. Cox will be running in a massive general election with many other candidates on the ballot, all perhaps overshadowed by what could be a wild and crazy presidential election.

Still, the lessons from the recent special primary election are instructive, especially for the large field expected in the U.S. Senate race next year. Candidates who can win at convention and have the support of the party behind them, while still being acceptable to moderate Republicans and even some independents, will have an advantage.

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Does the primary special election offer any opportunities for Democrat Kathleen Riebe?

Pignanelli: Riebe will need to find messages that move her base to vote but more importantly compel independents and moderate Republicans. Maloy demonstrated you don’t need an abundance of money but a wealth of shrewd strategy to prevail.

Webb: In the final election, Maloy will be the obvious strong favorite of conservative Republicans, but she will also enjoy support from moderates. That spells big trouble for Riebe, even though she is a solid candidate.

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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