The Utah 2nd District special election could be closer than you think

Democrats are waging a strong campaign in this solid-red district.

November 20, 2023, 9:02 AM

As the rest of America is preparing for Thanksgiving this week, candidates in Utah's 2nd Congressional District are talking turkey.

On Tuesday, this sprawling district — which stretches from urban Salt Lake City to the stunning wilderness along the Arizona border — will hold a special election to fill the seat of former Republican Rep. Chris Stewart, who resigned in September to spend more time with his ill wife. On paper, the election should be an easy Republican win — but there's reason to think it could be more interesting than most people assume.

Like the rest of Utah's congressional districts, the 2nd District was drawn to reliably elect Republicans by grouping Democratic-leaning voters in the Salt Lake City area with a larger number of Republican-leaning voters in rural Utah. According to Daily Kos Elections, former President Donald Trump carried the district 57 percent to 40 percent in 2020, and Stewart won 60 percent to 34 percent in 2022.

But Democrats have been doing unusually well in special elections so far this year, and if that pattern continues on Tuesday, Republicans could get a bit of a scare. According to my calculations, congressional and state-legislative special-election margins so far in 2023 have been an average of 9 percentage points more Democratic than the base partisanship* of the districts in which they've been held. According to my calculations, the base partisanship of Utah's 2nd District is R+21, so if Democrats turn in an average overperformance there, Republicans would win by only 12 points.

The only public poll of the race suggests an even tighter result is possible. A Lighthouse Research poll conducted Sept. 26 to Oct. 6 found that Republican attorney Celeste Maloy led Democratic state Sen. Kathleen Riebe by just 9 points (43 percent to 34 percent) among registered voters.

That poll is a month and a half old at this point, but Riebe has been running a strong campaign in the interim. She outspent Maloy $147,656 to $63,247 from Oct. 1 through Nov. 1, and as of last week, she was the only candidate running TV ads. That could be an advantage given how sleepy the campaign has been and the unusual timing of the election two days before Thanksgiving (when few people are probably thinking about voting). She has also leaned into the issue of abortion, which has been turnout gold for Democrats since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade last summer.

That said, Maloy doesn't match the profile of the flawed candidates who have blown winnable races for the GOP in the past. She's Stewart's former chief legal counsel, not a bomb-throwing epigone of Trump. In an October debate, she focused on fiscal conservatism and small government and even said she wanted to find common ground with Democrats. As of Nov. 1, she also had more cash available for the final stretch than Riebe did, $119,525 to $29,672.

Between the national environment, Riebe's vigorous campaign and the unusual timing of the election, it wouldn't be surprising to see Democrats turn out at a higher rate than Republicans and make this special election closer than expected on Tuesday night. But the district still has so many more Republicans than Democrats that an outright Riebe win would be a pretty big surprise. In all likelihood, Maloy will succeed her former boss in Congress — but we'll know for sure soon enough.

*Based on the average difference between how the district voted and how the country voted overall in the last two presidential elections, with the most recent presidential election weighted 75 percent and the second-most recent presidential election weighted 25 percent.

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