Utah 2 Special: Beehive State Buzz

by Jacob Rubashkin June 7, 2023 · 11:48 AM EDT

Utah Republican Chris Stewart recently made a surprise announcement that he would resign from Congress before the end of his term to care for his ailing wife. Stewart’s early exit —he told Roll Call he was aiming for September — will set up a special election to fill his seat for the remainder of the term.

Under Utah law, if Stewart resigns in September, the earliest the special general election can take place is March 5, 2024. The Republican primary, which is the most consequential contest in this solid GOP district, would take place on Nov. 7, 2023.

The Lay of the Land
Utah’s 2nd District is a largely rural district that covers much of western Utah, as well as the northwestern quarter of Salt Lake County.

Half of the district’s population resides in the Salt Lake City metro area, while 22 percent is in the St. George metro area and 16 percent in the Ogden-Clearfield metro area.

The 2nd’s population is roughly 75 percent white and 15 percent Hispanic, with the balance split between Asian, Black, and Native residents. Just over 32 percent of the population holds a bachelor’s degree (less than the nationwide rate of 38 percent).

Politically, the district is solidly Republican. It would have voted for Donald Trump by 17 points, 56-39 percent, in 2020, and by a similar margin for Trump in 2016: 47-31 percent, with the rest going to independent candidate Evan McMullin.

In 2022, when McMullin ran against Sen. Mike Lee (as an independent but also the de facto Democratic nominee), Lee carried the 2nd by 11 points, 53-42 percent.

That year, Stewart easily won re-election, 60-34 percent, over Democrat Nick Mitchell.

The Republican Field
The special is expected to draw a crowd of Republicans. In the last special election for a House seat in Utah — 2017’s 3rd District contest to succeed Rep. Jason Chaffetz — 15 candidates sought the GOP nomination.

So far, just one candidate has announced a bid, with many more expressing interest. 

Former state Rep. Becky Edwards, who represented North Salt Lake (population 22,300) from 2009 to 2019, is officially in the race. A moderate Republican and a former family therapist, Edwards challenged Lee in the 2022 GOP Senate primary from the center, losing 62-30 percent. She’s now a member of the Salt Lake Tribune editorial board.

State Sen. Todd Weiler told the Tribune he was considering a run. Weiler, an attorney, has represented North Salt Lake and Woods Cross since 2012. Weiler has an active Twitter presence and often gets into back-and-forths with constituents online. He was one of just two Republicans in the state Senate to vote against Utah’s new law banning gender-affirming care for minors, and is a leader in the state’s anti-pornography movement.

Former state House Speaker Greg Hughes placed third in the 2020 GOP gubernatorial primary with 21 percent, and the Tribune reports that “a close associate confirmed he was seriously considering a bid.” The property manager and developer from Draper, Utah served in the state House from 2003 to 2018, and was an early vocal supporter of Trump — rare in a state that bristled at the then-candidate in the 2016 election. 

Several other candidates also told the Tribune they were taking a look.

State Sen. Mike Kennedy is a family physician and father of eight from Alpine, Utah. He was elected to the state House in 2012 and the state Senate in 2020, and in 2018, he ran an underdog campaign to succeed Sen. Orrin Hatch. He made national news when he edged past Mitt Romney at the party nominating convention, though he later lost the primary, 70-29 percent.

Aimee Winder Newton is a Salt Lake County councilor and also the director of the state’s Office of Families. Winder Newton has served on the county council since 2014, where she helped pass an anti-conversion therapy bill; she was one of just a few GOP politicians endorsed by pro-LGBTQ rights group Equality Utah in the 2022 elections. In 2020, Winder Newton ran for governor, placing third at the state GOP convention.

Jordan Hess is the vice chairman of the Utah Republican Party and the public affairs officer for Washington City, in Utah’s southwestern corner. He was Lee’s campaign manager in the 2016 Senate race.

Three former congressional candidates could take another shot.

Attorney Erin Rider worked as a staffer under Hatch in the Senate and ran against Stewart in the 2022 GOP primary. Rider, who didn’t vote for Trump in 2020, won 27 percent of the vote in the 2022 primary running slightly to Stewart’s left. 

Former state Rep. Kim Coleman ran for the 4th District GOP nomination in 2020, earning endorsements from House Freedom Caucus stalwarts such as Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan and Arizona Reps. Andy Biggs and Paul Gosar. She placed second in the primary behind now-Rep. Burgess Owens, 44-24 percent.

Kathleen Anderson is a former communications director for the Utah GOP. She ran for the 4th District in 2020 as a “conservative outsider,” placing third at the district GOP nominating convention.

Washington County Commissioners Gil Almquist, Victor Iverson, and Adam Snow (who served as Stewart’s regional director for Southern Utah from 2016 to 2022) could all run as well. 

The Nominating Process
In Utah, candidates for office have two ways of getting on the primary ballot: convention and petition. Candidates can attempt to secure ballot access using both methods. 

Republicans will hold a nominating convention two months ahead of the primary. In this case, that means the convention will likely be in early September. As such, the convention could take place prior to Stewart’s actual resignation — this was also the case in 2017, when Chaffetz resigned two weeks after the 3rd District convention.

The convention is attended by delegates elected at the precinct level (779 delegates cast ballots in the 2022 2nd District convention). A candidate needs 60 percent of the convention vote to secure a spot on the ballot. If no candidate hits that mark on the first ballot, the worst-performing candidate is eliminated and the vote is redone, until one candidate breaks 60 percent, or two candidates remain with neither at 60 percent. In that case, both candidates receive a spot on the ballot. The convention also has the option of using ranked-choice instant-runoff voting rather than casting separate ballots each round, and can also choose to lower the threshold needed to win — in 2017, the state party controversially required just 50 percent to secure a sole nomination.

No more than two candidates can win ballot access at the convention.

Utah conventions are attended by the most engaged members of the state party and often have a more conservative, activist bent than the larger GOP electorate. That can result in unexpected outcomes, such as when longtime Sen. Bob Bennet failed to make the ballot in 2010 after placing third, or outcomes incongruent with the eventual primary results, such as when Kennedy beat Romney at the 2018 convention only to lose in a landslide in the primary, or when now-Rep. John Curtis placed fifth at the 2017 special election convention 

Petitioning is the more straightforward — albeit resource-intensive — route. A candidate for Congress must collect valid signatures from 7,000 registered Republican voters in the district (voters cannot sign more than one petition). Any candidate that does so will appear on the primary ballot.

How It Plays Out
It is still early, and many potential candidates have to decide whether or not to run. With such a long runway before the September convention and November primary, there’s plenty of time for the contours of the race to come into focus.

Geography and political ideology could both be dividing lines in the primary field. The Utah Republican Party contains a significant share of moderate and Trump-skeptical voters as well as those more aligned with the former president and Lee, the state’s senior senator. And while many of the potential candidates hail from Salt Lake City and its environs, that could create an opportunity for a candidate from the southwestern part of the state to make a splash — that area hasn’t sent a member to Congress for decades. 

The Bottom Line
This race won’t affect the math for the majority. A Republican will be the next representative from the 2nd District. But Stewart’s resignation does mean that House Speaker Kevin McCarthy will have an even narrower margin to work with for some period of time.

The prospect of a long vacancy might also spur Utah’s leaders to take additional action to hasten the special election. On Monday, Gov. Spencer Cox told the Deseret News that “We’re still working with Congressman Stewart to decide how long he is able to stay on, and that will determine the actual timeline.” And the state Senate president said he was “supportive of a special session to address” the timing of the special election.