GOP candidates clash on Ukraine support — and little else — at final debate to replace Rep. Chris Stewart

Thirteen candidates have entered the race but only 11 made it to the debate at Dixie Technical College.

St. George • Republican hopefuls vying to replace Rep. Chris Stewart in Utah’s 2nd Congressional District touted their credentials and willingness to tackle government spending and overreach Thursday evening at Dixie Technical College.

In the final of two debates, which displayed little rancor and widespread unanimity on most issues, the 11 candidates largely stuck to traditional GOP talking points ahead of Saturday’s special Republican Convention at Delta High School.

However, there were some exceptions. Former state Rep. Becky Edwards issued a mea culpa for her departure from Republican orthodoxy in the 2020 presidential race in supporting Joe Biden.

“I have been extremely disappointed with the Biden administration and regret that,” Edwards said in response to Utah Republican Party Chairman Rob Axson’s question about why voters should trust her.

Scott Reber, a former congressional staffer, criticized Sens. Mitt Romney and Mike Lee. He called out Romney for voting twice to impeach former President Donald Trump, saying “that alone was a huge mistake for Utah.” He also criticized Lee who lost his seat on the Senate Commerce Committee for trying to oust Mitch McConnell, R-Ky, as Senate minority leader.

“That’s not something I would have done,” he said.

Reber and Edwards were two of eight candidates at the debate with government experience. Former Utah House Speaker Greg Hughes, Republican National Committee member Bruce Hough, Stewart’s former chief legal counsel Celeste Maloy, Leeds Mayor Bill Hoster, former state party communications director and congressional candidate Kathleen Anderson and former Utah GOP Vice Chair Jordan Hess are also seasoned government professionals.

Conversely, entrepreneur Quin Denning, professor Henry Eyring, and student Scott Hatfield are political neophytes. Ty Jensen, who was unable to get off work, and Remy Bubba Kush, who was disqualified from participating for not filling out the requisite forms and responding to party leaders’ emails and phone calls, missed the debate. Kush is barred from participating at Saturday’s convention but can still gather signatures to attempt to qualify for a primary election.

Due to the large size of the field, the 11 candidates were split into groups of six and five who largely fielded identical questions from Axson, who served as the moderator. The candidates were also asked during a round-robin segment to signal their stances on several issues with simple “yes” or “no” answers or by raising their hands.

Eight of the candidates, who live within district boundaries, trumpeted their southern Utah bona fides.

“Surely there’s enough homegrown talent that we don’t have to look outside the district to find somebody to represent us …,” said Maloy, who lives in Cedar City. “It’s time to send someone from Southern Utah to D.C.”

Hughes, who along with Hough, Hatfield and Kush, lives outside the district countered that his legislative experience working with rural cities on land and water issues in southern Utah make him familiar with the issues and uniquely qualified for the job.

Attacks on Washington, vows to protect guns

Hoster, who is supported by anti-drag show crusader and St. George Councilwoman Michelle Tanner, blasted Republican officeholders in Congress for being RINOs, short for “Republican in Name Only.”

“They put an ‘R’ behind their name, and they get into those seats and they vote a different way ...,” the Leeds mayor said. “I don’t think it’s right for those people to come in, represent you with qualities that you voted them in for, and they [go to Washington and] vote a different way.”

Hoster, who spoke at an anti-drag show event and recently hired a Nevada political firm that attempted to enlist the far-right Proud Boys militia in 2020 for a post-presidential election protest, said he would stand strong and stay true to conservative values.

The candidates all signaled their opposition to further gun control measures.

“I’m going to push back on any federal regulation … that stops people from [owning] a gun,” Reber vowed. “Bump stocks and pistol braces — those are all things that you should have.”

Bump stocks, which are attachments that enable shooters to fire semi-automatic rifles in rapid succession after an initial pull of the trigger, were banned during the Trump administration in 2019. However, the ban was struck down by the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in January. Pistol braces are stabilizing arm braces that attach to the rear of guns and allow shooters to fire one-handed.

Government overreach also garnered candidates’ unanimous opposition. Denning took issue with the Respect for Marriage Act, which bolsters protections in federal law for same-sex marriage.

“It didn’t go far enough in protecting religious liberty,” said Denning, who added Congress has no business making laws about state issues like religion or marriage.”

Hough was one of several candidates who decried the inability of members of Congress to stand up to federal agencies who decide “to become … unelected legislators.” Hughes echoed those concerns, saying federal lawmakers need to use the power of the purse by enacting laws to rein in “rogue” federal agencies.

Eyring, grandson of Henry B. Eyring of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ governing First Presidency, waxed ursine in his vow to combat government overreach.

“I’m a papa grizzly bear and I’m married to a momma grizzly bear, and the government is getting between the grizzly bear and the cubs,” he said. “We are here to say we’ve had enough. And we are going to go straight to those Department of Education bureaucrats, straight to the FBI, straight to these people in government who think that D.C. gets to rule our lives in our communities in our schools. And you are going to tell them to get out.”

Opposition to federal control of Utah’s public lands also garnered unanimous support. Hess vowed to protect farmers and ranchers that produce food security from undue federal interference in the state’s public lands and water. Maloy, who considers public lands issues foremost among her policy chops, also lashed out at the federal government.

“The federal government is way too involved in your day-to-day lives …,” she said. “It’s the job of your representative in Congress to pry the federal government’s fingers back off your lives and your livelihoods.”

Another source of widespread agreement was government spending.

“Our interest on our debt alone is about to become the largest line item in our federal budget,” Hess said. “We will soon spend more on interest [on the debt] than we spend on our military. This is wrong.”

Where they didn’t find agreement

A crack in the candidates’ facade of unanimity surfaced over Ukraine. Anderson said Ukraine has shown a tendency to go rogue and appeared to be responsible for sabotaging Russia’s Nord Stream pipeline, something Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has denied.

“That is something that we need to take into consideration,” she said, referring to U.S. support for Ukraine.

Hess said the U.S. needs to stop writing blank checks to fund the war in Ukraine and must demand accountability for how the money is spent. Maloy spoke of the need for a plan that defines what a successful outcome in the conflict may look like.

Hough, though, disagreed.

“We’re destroying the Russian military, and we are not losing any American lives doing it,” he said.

For her part, Anderson said the U.S. is going in the wrong direction and said her “God-fearing, faith-promoting family” stands poised to help the nation get back on course.

“We have a sign in our kitchen that says, ‘You can’t serve God if you are worried about offending the devil,’” she said. “What’s facing our country today is more to me than right versus left. It’s right versus wrong.”

Hughes said his experience means he stands ready to go to Washington and battle the woke mob and leftist special interests.

“I’m battle-tested,” he said. “I have scars [from] head to toe. I’ve worked in this field.”

Utah’s GOP field to replace Stewart will be winnowed down at Saturday’s state convention since most of the candidates have opted to pursue the convention route to the election. There will only be one winner at the convention. The remaining candidates have until July 5 to collect 7,000 signatures to force a primary in September. If signature-gatherers fail in that pursuit, Saturday’s winner will be the GOP nominee by default.