Usually, Labor Day is considered the traditional start of campaign season — but here in 2023, it marks the end of the competitive phase of two heated special elections. Neither Rhode Island’s 1st Congressional District nor Utah’s 2nd is expected to be very competitive in November’s general elections, so Tuesday’s primaries will likely determine their new representatives. And whoever wins will have really worked for it; both primaries have had no shortage of drama.
Races to watch: 1st Congressional District
Polls close: 8 p.m. Eastern
When Rep. David Cicilline resigned at the end of May to become president of the Rhode Island Foundation, he left behind a rare opening in a deep-blue district that President Biden carried 64 percent to 35 percent, according to Daily Kos Elections — and ambitious Democrats rushed in to fill the void. Twelve names are on the Democratic primary ballot on Tuesday, and the race has been so chaotic that at least four of them have a legitimate shot at winning.
The early favorite was Lt. Gov. Sabina Matos, whose name recognition gave her a decent base of support (albeit only around 20 percent) in early polls of the race, while most other candidates were stuck in single digits. But in July, election officials in several towns flagged certain signatures on Matos’s nomination papers as potentially fraudulent — for example, they were from dead people or living people who said they never signed them. Matos still had enough valid signatures to make the ballot, but in the end, 559 of the 1,285 signatures she submitted were disqualified, and the state attorney general and state police are conducting a criminal investigation into whether fraud was committed (in Rhode Island, it is illegal to forge nomination signatures). Matos has blamed a campaign vendor for the snafu, but the scandal may have turned voters against her. According to internal polling from a rival campaign (so take it with a grain of salt), Matos’s net favorability rating among Democratic primary voters fell from +20 percentage points in June to -20 points in mid-August.
Another early contender was businessman Don Carlson, who — thanks in large part to a $600,000 loan to his own campaign — had raised the most money of any candidate in the race as of Aug. 16 (nearly $970,000). But in late August, local news reported that Carlson had made romantic overtures to a student while a faculty member at Williams College. Carlson eventually admitted that the report was true, and he dropped out of the race on Aug. 27.
In the wake of these scandals, two other candidates have emerged as possible front-runners. Former state Rep. Aaron Regunberg, who might be the governor of Rhode Island right now if 2,466 people had voted a different way,* could benefit from being the most prominent candidate in the progressive lane. He has raised the second-most money ($630,000) after Carlson and earned the endorsements of Sen. Bernie Sanders and Our Revolution.
By contrast, former White House staffer Gabe Amo is supported by more establishment Democrats. He has worked as an aide to Biden, former President Barack Obama, former Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, and his connections have helped him raise more than $604,000. The son of West African immigrants, he has also been endorsed by the campaign arm of the Congressional Black Caucus.
The only public poll of the race conducted in the last six weeks is the aforementioned internal poll, which was paid for by Amo’s campaign. It showed Regunberg at 28 percent and Amo at 19 percent, with Matos lagging behind at 11 percent. Amo used the survey to argue he is Regunberg’s main competition at this point, but don’t count out Matos just yet. She still has the valuable endorsement of EMILY’s List, and her backstory as a Dominican immigrant could resonate with the district’s growing Hispanic population.
On the other hand, another Latina candidate has been making waves in the race’s final weeks: state Sen. Sandra Cano, who sports dozens of endorsements from prominent Rhode Island politicos from across the political spectrum. Cano also took 11 percent in Amo’s internal poll, and that was before Carlson dropped out of the race — and endorsed Cano. Not all of Carlson’s 8 percent support in the poll will flow to Cano (Carlson’s name will remain on the ballot), but don’t be surprised to see her emerge as Regunberg’s biggest threat. Of note, Cano, Matos or Amo would each be the first person of color to represent Rhode Island in Congress if they prevail on Tuesday and in the Nov. 7 general election.
Races to watch: 2nd Congressional District
Polls close: 10 p.m. Eastern
Around the time Cicilline resigned his Rhode Island seat, Republican Rep. Chris Stewart of Utah’s 2nd Congressional District announced his intention to resign effective Sept. 15. The solidly red seat — former President Donald Trump carried it by 17 points in 2020 — attracted 13 GOP contenders, but due to Utah’s convention system and signature requirements for making the primary, just three Republicans will contend in today’s primary.
Former state Rep. Becky Edwards and former Republican National Committeeman Bruce Hough likely started out as better-known entities than Celeste Maloy, Stewart’s chief legal counsel, but the race may be anyone’s ballgame. Edwards rose in prominence in 2022 when she challenged Republican Sen. Mike Lee from his left in the GOP primary as an anti-Trump alternative, winning 30 percent of the vote. Hough is a longtime bigwig in the state party — he previously served as chair of the Utah GOP — and his family has gained notoriety through two of his children, Derek and Julianne, who became famous on the TV show Dancing with the Stars.** But Maloy, who has Stewart’s endorsement, won the party convention on June 24 to garner a spot on the primary ballot, an indication of her potential appeal to conservatives, as Utah GOP convention delegates tend to be more right-leaning than the primary electorate as a whole. Edwards and Hough each gathered enough signatures to qualify for the primary despite being eliminated at the convention.
Limited polling and fundraising numbers do suggest Edwards has a potential edge. Edwards led an early August poll from Dan Jones & Associates/Deseret News/Hinckley Institute of Politics with 32 percent, while Hough and Maloy sat well back at 11 percent and 9 percent, respectively. But with about half of voters undecided, the survey may have said more about Edwards’s name recognition advantage than her final vote percentage in this race. She also raised the most money from individual contributors, tallying $368,000 compared to Maloy’s $250,000 and Hough’s $202,000, as of Aug. 16. On top of that, Edwards has loaned her campaign $300,000, allowing her to outdistance Hough in total fundraising (he’s loaned himself around $335,000). She entered the home stretch of the campaign with $228,000 in the bank, about two and a half times what Hough and Maloy each had.
But the ideological divisions in this race could provide opportunities for Maloy or Hough to outdistance Edwards, who clearly occupies the moderate lane. After all, Edwards voted for Biden in 2020 — she did say in a recent debate that she regretted her vote — and worked to pass a resolution recognizing climate change in 2018. Meanwhile, Maloy and Hough have both criticized the indictments of Trump as politically motivated and taken firmly anti-abortion positions, although Maloy said she would potentially vote for a federal ban while Hough said it should be left to the states. Hough has also argued that he’d be the most reliable Republican in the race because he voted for Trump in both 2016 and 2020, a dig at Edwards’s Biden vote and a shot at Maloy for having failed to vote in 2020 or 2022.
And similar to the Rhode Island primary, this race also has its own ballot drama. After Maloy won at the GOP convention, it was revealed that her failure to vote in the past two statewide elections had caused Utah’s election officials to mark her as an inactive voter and begin the process of deleting her from the voting rolls. In fact, Maloy had only updated her Utah voter registration three days after she filed her candidacy. She has argued that because she moved to Virginia while working for Stewart on Capitol Hill, she did not want to cast a potentially fraudulent ballot in the past two elections. Still, this revelation prompted one of the eliminated Republican candidates at the convention to sue to have Maloy removed from the ballot. But a state court denied that request, and Republican Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson, the state’s chief elections officer, said Maloy properly filed for office. The state GOP also lacked any mechanism under party rules to undo Maloy’s convention victory, reported The Salt Lake Tribune, even as her credentials came under scrutiny.
Despite her troubles, Maloy may have a shot at winning thanks in part to the seat’s geographical divisions. The massive 2nd District runs from Salt Lake City in the north to Saint George in the southwest corner of the state. But Edwards and Hough both hail from northern Utah while Maloy comes from the south. In theory, then, Edwards and Hough could split much of the northern vote while Maloy racks up support on her home turf in the more rural south. As we’ve seen in many other primaries, outsized support from a candidate’s “friends and neighbors” could make all the difference in gaining a simple plurality to win the nomination. Moreover, the southern part of the district could contribute more of the primary vote, as a slight majority of Trump’s 2020 vote in the district came from south of the Wasatch Front, the string of northern metropolitan areas that ends in Utah County. And while he hasn’t endorsed, popular Republican Gov. Spencer Cox has said that he liked the idea of having someone from southern Utah representing the state in Congress. Hough may have his own geographical challenge, too, as he lives in Park City, which sits east of the 2nd District.
The winner of today’s primary will advance to face Democratic state Sen. Kathleen Riebe in the Nov. 21 general election, a matchup that is likely to send the GOP primary victor to Congress.
*That’s the margin by which current Gov. Dan McKee defeated Regunberg in the 2018 Democratic primary for lieutenant governor. McKee was elevated to governor when former Gov. Gina Raimondo resigned to become U.S. secretary of commerce.
**FiveThirtyEight’s parent company, ABC News, is the news division of ABC, which broadcasts Dancing with the Stars.