Republican Celeste Maloy calls for a pre-primary debate blitz ahead of special election

Utah GOP Chair Rob Axson says the party plans to sponsor at least one pre-primary debate. Maloy has proposed 13 debates — one for each county in Utah’s 2nd Congressional District.

(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 a special election this fall to replace outgoing-Rep. Chris Stewart. Maloy — who is now facing two GOP primary challengers — is calling for 13 debates ahead of September's special primary election.

Republican Celeste Maloy is calling for a baker’s dozen of debates ahead of the September GOP primary in the 2nd Congressional District special election. That will be a tall order with a little more than 50 days remaining until election day.

Maloy, who secured a spot in the primary to replace Rep. Chris Stewart by winning the delegate vote at the special GOP convention last month, challenged Becky Edwards and Bruce Hough, her opponents on the primary ballot, to debate in each of the 13 counties in the district.

“With the primary ballot set, I urge my opponents to accept my invitation to give voters in the 2nd District a clear understanding of what they can expect from each of us. Republicans deserve a robust debate on the policies that directly impact their lives and the direction of our country, and I am eager to share my positions and show how I plan to fight for the conservative values of the people I am running to represent,” Maloy said in a news release Thursday.

Maloy, a former staffer in Stewart’s office, moved back to Utah from Virginia last month to run for her boss’ seat. She’s been criticized for not casting a ballot in the 2020 and 2022 elections, raising questions about her eligibility to run for the Republican nomination.

Hough, who officially qualified for the primary through the signature path on Wednesday, eagerly accepted Maloy’s gambit while taking a shot at the support Maloy’s campaign is receiving from Washington, D.C. lobbyists.

“I’m ready anytime and anywhere, just let me know when you come to Utah from your DC Lobbyist Fundraiser,” Hough quipped on Twitter.

Stewart has endorsed Maloy’s campaign to replace him in Congress. Next week, he’s hosting a high-dollar fundraising reception for her in Washington, D.C. An invitation for the event lists the suggested donation as $3,300 per person or $5,000 for political action committees.

Edwards, who qualified for the ballot via signature gathering last week, was noncommittal about Maloy’s proposal.

“Debates are a great way for voters to learn about the candidates. We encourage anyone interested to watch the two debates that have already happened and engage regularly with the candidates throughout the election process,” said Chelsea Fife, an Edwards campaign spokesperson.

A 13-debate schedule is probably unworkable given that ballots will be mailed to GOP voters in the 2nd District in about a month — but that doesn’t mean debates are off the menu. Utah GOP Chair Rob Axson says the party plans to sponsor at least one pre-primary debate.

“Possibly more than one. We’ll see what the appetite is,” Axson said in a text message to The Salt Lake Tribune.

In 2022, the Utah GOP clashed with the non-partisan Utah Debate Commission over pre-primary debates. Party leaders argued since the primary election was to select the Republican nominee, they should have a say on what questions would be asked and who would moderate the events. That request was rebuffed by the debate commission, prompting the Utah GOP to sponsor independent debates.

Axson says he plans to continue having the party keep control of pre-primary debates. Last month he moderated a pair of debates prior to the special convention vote.

“We’re happy to work with any partners, but I believe the party should be taking the lead while the contest is in the nominating phase,” Axson said.

The primary election is Sept. 5. The winner will face Democrat Kathleen Riebe in the Nov. 21 special general election.