Congressional candidates Bruce Hough and Celeste Maloy touted their experience to 2nd District voters during the first of 10 debates prior to the Sept. 5 GOP primary election. Becky Edwards, the only other Republican candidate to qualify for the special election to replace Rep. Chris Stewart, was invited but did not attend.

The debate, scheduled by Maloy, the GOP convention winner, for Friday evening and hosted by the Davis County Republican Party in the Farmington City Building, was preceded by controversy over whether Edwards would or would not be there.

The Maloy campaign issued a statement on Tuesday morning thanking her primary opponents for accepting the challenge that she had issued two weeks earlier to participate in a debate in all 13 counties represented within Utah’s 2nd Congressional District.

However, the Edwards campaign denied having ever confirmed that Edwards would attend the debates — a position they reaffirmed through a statement given to the Deseret News shortly before Friday’s debate.

“We participated in both of the official Utah Republican Party debates, and will not be present at any of our opponent’s campaign events,” a spokesperson for the Edwards campaign said.

The debates, which will mostly be moderated by county chairs, should be considered official GOP events because they were scheduled in partnership with county parties and with the Utah Republican Party, state party chair Rob Axson said in a message to the Deseret News.

The debate was moderated by Davis County Republican Party Chair Yemi Arunsi, who directed five questions to the candidates, who were both given 30 to 60 seconds to respond, before time was given for nine audience members to ask the candidates questions.

“This is the marketplace of ideas. This is where we come to listen to our candidates. To hear what their principles are. To hear what their vision is,” Farmington Mayor Brett Anderson said as the event began.

People listen as candidates Bruce Hough and Celeste Maloy take part in the first of 10 debates for the Republican primary race to replace Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, at Farmington City Hall on Friday, Aug. 4, 2023. | Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

Hough and Maloy sat side by side in the room that the Farmington City Council uses for its meetings and began the event with a friendly handshake.

In what appeared to be a criticism of Edwards, both candidates emphasized the importance of “showing up” and making one’s views clear to potential constituents in their opening statements.

“I think we have a responsibility to be here and answer questions in front of you so that you all know who we are and can make an informed decision,” Maloy said.

Instead of disagreeing over policy issues, Hough and Maloy made a point of recognizing the similarity in their beliefs and tried to distinguish themselves by describing their backgrounds in private business and public service.

When asked how he would fix Congress’ approach to spending and deficit reduction, Hough appealed to his experience as a serial entrepreneur who has started successful companies in satellite communications and nutritional supplements.

“We have to treat each other with respect but we have to have productive conflict in Congress,” Hough said. “As a businessman, that was my focus. ‘How do we come to solutions? How do we focus on the things that actually will move the needle.’ That’s by experience, and that’s the experience I’ll take to Washington to get things done.”

In response to the same question, Maloy said that solving the nation’s debt problems cannot involve raising taxes. Instead, it requires cutting the spending of federal agencies by defunding all activities outside of their congressionally mandated authority, and fixing inflation and incentivizing homeownership to keep the economy strong.

Maloy worked as a soil conservationist and county attorney in southern Utah before working as Stewart’s chief legal counsel for four years. She said this experience, as well as Stewart’s endorsement, shows that she is prepared to work effectively in congressional committees on day one.

The question of a weaponized judicial system was brought up by the county chair and multiple audience members. Hough said that people must be treated equally under the law today, even if the law was misused or ignored in the past, and that the nation needs to return to the presumption of innocence regardless of party affiliation.

Maloy agreed, and criticized both political parties for misusing their congressional authority to attack the opposing side’s president.

“I’m concerned that the way we’re doing these investigations is making us look like a Banana Republic,” she said. “I think we’ve cheapened the impeachment process by using it as a political gimmick.”

She added that for Americans to regain trust in their institutions, the law must be applied evenhandedly.

The candidates were asked to take specific stances on some policy questions, such as environmental, social and governance (ESG) investing in the private sector. Maloy condemned the practice and said the federal government should not spend any money to support it but stopped short of suggesting further action. Hough, on the other hand, said the Securities and Exchange Commission should be empowered to seek legal action against companies that pursue ESG practices and do not fulfill their duties to shareholders.

Candidates Bruce Hough and Celeste Maloy take part in the first of 10 debates for the Republican primary race to replace Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, at Farmington City Hall on Friday, Aug. 4, 2023. | Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

However, the majority of the candidates’ discussion focused on introducing themselves to voters who have had less time than during normal election cycles to get to know the candidates.

Hough emphasized how seriously he took the responsibility of public service and said that he is committed to being a public servant with a “service heart.”

“I don’t need a job and I’m not climbing a political ladder,” Hough said. “I’m here to ask for your vote, to send somebody who has the breadth and depth of experience to make a difference.”

Maloy repeated her willingness to fight, albeit without name calling, to “make sure the federal government is not interfering” with people’s lives, and shared how her life story proves that one person can make a difference.

“I think I am proof that the American dream is alive and well,” she said. “And I’m so grateful for that that I want to make sure I spend my life protecting the American dream.” 

The special primary election, between Hough, Maloy and Edwards, will be Sept. 5. The special general election, which will feature nominees from most of Utah’s registered political parties, will be Nov. 21.

Signage for candidates Celeste Maloy and Bruce Hough welcome people to the first of 10 debates for the Republican primary race to replace Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, at Farmington City Hall on Friday, Aug. 4, 2023. | Spenser Heaps, Deseret News