Celeste Maloy, Becky Edwards neck and neck in Utah’s 2nd Congressional District GOP special primary election

Edwards, Maloy and Bruce Hough are running in the special GOP primary to replace Rep. Chris Stewart in Congress. The GOP winner will face Democrat Kathleen Riebe in November.

(The Salt Lake Tribune) Celeste Maloy, left, and Becky Edwards, Republican candidates for the 2nd Congressional District.

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As polls closed Tuesday evening in what has been a sprint of a Republican primary race to replace Rep. Chris Stewart in Utah’s 2nd Congressional District, Becky Edwards took an early lead over her two GOP opponents. But, as county results rolled in throughout the evening, Celeste Maloy’s appeal to rural voters made the race too close to call an apparent winner.

Maloy, a former Stewart staffer who received her boss’ endorsement, led late Tuesday evening with just over 37.83% of the vote, with Edwards and Bruce Hough tallying 36.13% and 26.04%, respectively, according to early preliminary returns released by the state around 10:45 p.m. At the time, just 1,184 votes separated Maloy and Edwards.

Those unofficial results included initial votes from 11 of 13 counties with voters in the district, according to Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson’s office, with Beaver and Wayne counties still to report results.

Among Edwards’ partygoers were some of the who’s who among Latter-day Saint progressives, as well as both Republican and Democratic state lawmakers. In a crimson state, and a district where nearly two-thirds of the vote went toward GOP incumbent Stewart last year, Edwards is seen as the most moderate option in the Republican trio.

[READ: Utah 2nd Congressional District GOP primary: When will there be a winner?]

Hailing from North Salt Lake, the former state lawmaker built her campaign off of momentum from a 2022 primary challenge against Sen. Mike Lee. A number of attendees wore T-shirts from the Senate race, some modified with duct tape to say “Congress.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Becky Edwards arrives to her watch party for Utah’s 2nd Congressional District GOP primary in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Sept. 5, 2023.

Hough, who began his campaign preaching the gospel of fiscal responsibility and the need to rein in out-of-control federal spending, shifted hard in the final weeks to a pro-Trump message, airing ads that he was the only one of the three Republican candidates who voted for Trump in 2016 and 2020.

While Edwards took an earlier lead as the first unofficial results were reported by the state — it did not hold.

After starting the evening nearly 10,000 votes behind Edwards, Maloy pulled ahead of Edwards shortly before 10 p.m. when Washington County reported its first batch of ballots, with Maloy grabbing nearly 45% of the vote.

Maloy’s strategy of emphasizing her roots in Southern Utah seemingly paid off, as she ran up big numbers in the southern part of the state, scoring more than 50% in several counties. Maloy also avoided being overwhelmed in Edwards-friendly Salt Lake and Davis Counties.

“Strong turnout in Piute County! Rural communities are going to get this done!,” Maloy wrote on X Tuesday evening.

Maloy’s campaign did not comment further Tuesday evening.

Edwards sent her supporters home at around 10 p.m., telling them “we’re feeling optimistic and so grateful tonight,” she said before walking off the stage to the audience chanting “Becky.”

Despite falling to third place Tuesday night, Hough was not ready to concede defeat. “What we don’t know is how many votes are remaining to be counted,” he said.

Hough says his internal polling suggested undecided voters were breaking in his direction in the latter days of the campaign, and they are counting on big support from same-day voters.

“I think it’s going to tighten up a lot more. If there’s 20,000 more votes to count, then yeah,” he said. “If there’s 5,000 votes left, then no.”

[READ: Here are the first municipal primary vote totals in Salt Lake County cities, Ogden and St. George]

GOP delegates chose Maloy at the party’s nominating convention in June, and Hough — like Edwards — made the ballot gathering signatures. Each county with voters living in the 2nd District has two weeks, until Sept. 19, to finish tallying the votes, and must send them to Henderson’s office by Sept. 22.

The winner will face Democratic state Sen. Kathleen Riebe in the general election on Nov. 21.

An unexpected special election

The unexpected special election comes after Stewart announced in late May that he was retiring, citing health concerns with his wife. The Salt Lake Tribune first reported that Stewart was planning to leave Washington. Stewart was reelected to his sixth term in Congress last fall.

The congressman’s resignation set off a scramble in the state to elect a new Utahn to the delegation. Two weeks after Stewart’s announcement, the Legislature met in a special session to fund and schedule the special election, setting the primary on Sept. 5 and a general election on Nov. 21.

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) Bruce Hough attends an election night event in West Valley City, Tuesday, Sept. 5, 2023.

Utah’s two major political parties also hosted nominating conventions to decide their nominees in the race.

Republicans chose Celeste Maloy, a former Stewart staffer who received the endorsement of the outgoing congressman. Former state lawmaker Becky Edwards and businessman Hough qualified for Tuesday’s GOP primary by securing their spots on the ballot through signature gathering.

Democrats met virtually to nominate educator and state legislator Kathleen Riebe.

Hough and Edwards leaned on their personal wealth ahead of Tuesday’s primary election. Hough loaned his campaign more than $400,000, and Edwards put $300,000 of her own money into her effort. Last year, Edwards loaned her unsuccessful U.S. Senate campaign against Lee $527,000. Candidates are allowed to repay themselves using money from donors.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Celeste Maloy as the Utah Republican Party holds its quarterly State Central Committee meeting in Sandy on Saturday, Aug. 19, 2023.

Edwards has spent the most on advertising ahead of the primary election, according to political ad tracking firm AdImpact. Edwards spent $350,000, while Hough put a little more than $118,000 toward advertising. Maloy spent just over $53,000.

Edwards and her husband, according to mandatory financial disclosures filed with the U.S. House of Representatives, have a net worth of between $4.2 million and $18.2 million. Hough’s filings show his net worth ranging somewhere between $2.53 million and $11.1 million. Maloy’s filing shows just one investment account with a value between $1,000 and $15,000.