Celeste Maloy wins Utah Republicans’ nomination for special congressional election

After five rounds of voting, GOP delegates chose Maloy over former Utah House Speaker Greg Hughes to run in Utah’s 2nd Congressional District special election this fall.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Celeste Maloy answers a question during the GOP 2nd Congressional District debate, at Woods Cross High School, on Tuesday, June 20, 2023. After four founds of voting at a June 23 special Republican convention, Maloy wont the GOP nomination for the fall special election.

Delta • Delta — population 3,500 — was the center of Utah’s political universe on Saturday.

The sleepy agricultural town in Millard County, which set the Guinness World Record for the world’s largest bunny hop in 2007, saw Celeste Maloy upset Greg Hughes in the race to replace Rep. Chris Stewart in Utah’s 2nd Congressional District. If no candidates are able to secure the 7,000 signatures to qualify for the primary, she will be the party nominee in November’s special election.

Hughes, a former Utah House Speaker, led after every round of voting except for the final ballot, which saw Maloy secure 52.1% of the vote for the win.

“Wow!,” Maloy, a former staffer in Stewart’s office, said shortly after defeating Hughes by 31 votes. “This feels surreal. This all happened really fast. It took a lot of hard work over the last two weeks, but it paid off.”

Former Utah GOP Vice Chairman Jordan Hess brought delegates to their feet as he threw his support behind Maloy prior to the fifth and final round of voting against Hughes. His late endorsement was what put her over the top as he had finished in third place in the voting until he was eliminated after the fourth round.

Maloy said the fact that she lives in the district, hailing from Southern Utah, was a major factor in her win over Hughes, who does not reside within the boundaries of the 2nd District.

“It made all the difference. I think the second district is ready to have a representative who lives off the Wasatch Front and lives in the district,” Maloy says.

Hughes was disappointed but sanguine following his second straight election loss — he failed to win the GOP gubernatorial nomination in 2020.

“I’m not kicking myself right now. I never went into this race believing that my quality of life was going to be better, that this was going to be easy or fun. I knew it was going to be hard. I know the politics in Washington right now are so difficult. There’s a lot of expectations with these delegates about what they want,” Hughes said.

(Bryan Schott | The Salt Lake Tribune) Political signs outside Delta High School, where the Utah Republican Party hosted its 2023 special election convention on Saturday, June 24, 2023.

Saturday’s hastily scheduled special election followed Stewart’s decision to resign from Congress later this year. Stewart will leave the seat he has held since 2011 on Sept. 15, citing his wife’s ongoing health issues.

Ten days ago, Utah lawmakers approved delaying this year’s municipal elections to accommodate the special election to find a replacement for Stewart, voting to move the primary election from Aug. 15 to Sept. 5. The general election moved from Nov. 7 to Nov. 21.

The primary election — maybe

In nine days, we will know whether Maloy will have to gear up for a primary election in September. July 5 is the deadline for candidates who want to petition their way onto the ballot to turn in the needed 7,000 signatures.

Former state Rep. Becky Edwards says she is confident she wi7ll get enough signatures to qualify for the primary.

“We have enough (signatures) that I’m anticipating we’ll add another homegrown talent to the mix,” Edwards said. “And then we’ll have a primary with two women.”

At least three other Republicans, Bruce Hough, Scott Reber and Scott Hatfield, said they would take the signature-gathering path when they filed to run. Reber disavowed signature gathering during Saturday’s convention.

(Bryan Schott | The Salt Lake Tribune) Celeste Maloy after winning the Utah Republican Party's congressional nomination on June 24, 2023. Maloy will run in special election this fall to replace outgoing-Rep. Chris Stewart.

The special election following the unexpected resignation of Rep. Jason Chaffetz in 2017 illustrates how politics has a way of scrambling expectations.

Heading into that year’s convention, then-Sen. Diedre Henderson, a former Chaffetz staffer, was considered a heavy favorite among the 10 Republicans hoping to woo delegates and earn their votes. After five rounds of voting, Henderson finished second behind former state Rep. Chris Herrod. Then-Provo Mayor John Curtis, eliminated early in the delegate vote, won the primary election after gathering signatures.

A minor controversy erupted prior to Saturday’s convention over booth placement. Stewart was afforded a prime booth spot right behind the stage. Some campaigns reportedly objected because Stewart endorsed his former staffer Celeste Maloy in the race. Those objections were quelled with the placement of a large curtain behind the stage to shield Stewart’s signage from the convention audience.

It took nearly an hour to begin candidate speeches as delegates were sidetracked by a motion from the floor to ditch electronic voting in favor of paper balloting, which brought a huge groan from most other delegates. As party leadership scanned the rules to determine how such a change would work, one unnamed delegate yelled that expending energy on the issue was unnecessary.

“You don’t need to do that. We’re going to vote it down, anyway,” came the shout from the audience.

That proved to be prophetic, as the proposal was shot down in flames.

Party leadership seats

It wasn’t just congressional politics on the agenda. The Utah GOP’s State Central Committee met earlier to fill a pair of vacancies in party leadership: Jordan Hess, who was just elected to another term as the party’s vice chair, and Bruce Hough, one of three representatives from the state on the Republican National Committee, both resigned to run in the 2nd District special election.

Former state Rep. Kim Coleman bested former party secretary Olivia Williams, who goes by the name Olivia Dawn, to become the new vice chair. Coleman, who served three terms in the Utah House, was defeated by Burgess Owens in the 2020 GOP primary in the 4th Congressional District.

Williams and her mother, Teena Horlacher, were both on the grounds of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, when a mob of then-President Donald Trump’s supporters attacked Congress in an attempt to block Democrat Joe Biden’s win.

In February, Olivia signed as a witness on a $5 million lien Teena placed on her own home in Syracuse. That document used symbols, phrases and syntax common to followers of the far-right, anti-government sovereign citizen movement. Horlacher, who was elected to a position on the GOP’s executive committee on Saturday, has denied any such affiliation.

The election for Hough’s replacement remained unresolved after three rounds of balloting on Saturday. The two surviving candidates, Brad Bonham and Gunnar Thorderson, tied with 73 votes each. There were not enough central committee members still in the meeting for a quorum, pushing a final vote to the next meeting in August.