Utah lawmakers eye law change to speed up replacing Rep. Chris Stewart

Republican Becky Edwards officially filed as a candidate to replace Stewart on Monday.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rep. Chris Stewart and Gayle Ruzicka at the Utah Republican Party election night party at the Hyatt Regency in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2022. Stewart announced he was resigning from Congress last week.

If legislative leaders want to speed up the process of finding a replacement for Rep. Chris Stewart, they most likely will have to take action next week. But, several things have to happen first.

Stewart announced he was resigning from the U.S. House seat he has held since 2012 last week, a day after The Salt Lake Tribune first reported his plans to step down. The congressman has not yet given a timeline for his departure but said he did not plan to leave before September due to upcoming votes. Congress does not meet for the entire month of August.

Even though Stewart doesn’t plan on leaving until this fall, picking his successor begins once he submits his resignation letter — which hasn’t happened yet. At that point, Gov. Spencer Cox has seven days to issue a proclamation, setting the primary and special elections dates to fill the vacancy.

Under existing Utah law, Stewart’s seat could remain vacant until next March. Without legislative action, the primary election would be scheduled for Nov. 7, with the special election on the same day as the March 5 Utah Democratic presidential primary.

Cox can also call a special legislative session to pick new dates for the primary and special elections.

House Majority Leader Mike Schultz, R-Hooper, says discussions are ongoing about holding a special session during the regularly-scheduled interim meetings next week. Still, that process is on hold until Stewart submits his resignation letter.

“We don’t know when Rep. Stewart is planning on leaving,” Schultz said. “As of this weekend, we hadn’t heard a timeline for his plans, but we can’t leave a seat in Congress empty for that long.”

Changing current law

The most likely change, according to Schultz, is shortening the time frame for the special election process from a minimum of 180 days to 120 days. Instead of a minimum of 90 days from the governor’s proclamation to the primary election, with the special election at least 90 days after, lawmakers could cut those cycles to 60 days.

“We don’t need 90 days for this process. Sixty days are plenty for printing and mailing out ballots,” Schultz said.

Under that 60-day timeline, the primary election to replace Stewart could conceivably be held the same day as the August 15 municipal primary, with the special election on November 7. Scheduling the 2nd District election on those days would be the most economical move for the state.

Schultz says Gov. Spencer Cox has told legislative leaders he is willing to call them into special session when Stewart sends his resignation letter.

At a news conference Monday, Cox said, “making that vacancy as short as possible is important to all of us” and that he was willing to call a special session to get it done, Deseret News reported.

Republican Becky Edwards became the first official candidate to replace Stewart when she filed her statement of candidacy with the Federal Election Commission. Mike Lee defeated Edwards in the 2022 GOP U.S. Senate primary election. Edwards loaned her campaign $527,500 during that unsuccessful effort. Edwards previously served on The Tribune’s Editorial Board, and resigned when she filed.

There are at least 17 other Republicans, and a handful of Democrats, who are mulling joining Edwards in the race. State Sen. Todd Weiler, former Utah House Speaker Greg Hughes, Washington County Commissioner Todd Snow, Salt Lake County Council member Aimee Winder Newton and Utah Republican Party Vice Chair Jordan Hess are among the Republicans who have publicly acknowledged an interest in replacing Stewart.