Did rural Utahns decide the winner of the 2nd Congressional District special GOP primary?

On election night, Celeste Maloy said ‘Rural communities are going to get this done!’ She wasn’t wrong.

From her election night party in Cedar City, and while early returns showed she was falling behind one of her opponents, Republican Celeste Maloy predicted Utah’s 2nd Congressional District primary election was going to swing: “Rural communities are going to get this done!”

As votes continued to be counted, it started to look like she might be right.

In some of the 2nd District’s most rural counties, upward of 70% of Republican voters cast their ballot for her. And according to election results certified by Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson on Friday, residents in those counties showed up to the polls in greater proportions.

Wayne and Garfield counties — where Maloy received 56.6% and 72.9% of the vote, respectively — tied for the highest voter turnout in Utah’s 2nd district at 54.2%. The next highest was Becky Edwards’ home county, Davis, at 52.6%. The former state lawmaker won the county with 46.5% of voters’ support.

Ballots cast in the 10 least populated counties combined to outnumber two of the three most populated — Davis and Salt Lake. Southernmost Washington County, where Maloy previously worked and won by nearly 8 percentage points, had the highest number of voters.

The most densely populated county with a portion of residents in the district, Salt Lake, went for Edwards but was in the middle of the pack for voter turnout. Maloy’s address, meanwhile, is in Iron County, which was third to last in bringing voters to the polls with 40.6%.

(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.

Much of Maloy’s campaign focused on the rural vote — she played up her small-town roots, background in agriculture and history advocating for local control of open lands. When two other candidates were added to the Republican primary ballot, she wanted to have a debate in all 13 counties in the district, not just the more heavily populated ones along the Wasatch Front.

“As a Cedar City resident and someone who has a first-hand understanding of the issues rural Utah faces, it was important to me that we really worked to earn their support,” Maloy said in a statement to The Salt Lake Tribune.

She continued, “I think there’s a growing sense in rural Utah that they are all too often overlooked and, given the opportunity to vote for one of their own, I think they flexed their political muscles. Rural Utah needs someone to fight for them and to represent their values in the nation’s capital, and I’m committed to doing just that.”

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Support from super PACs

All three of the candidates in the GOP primary — Maloy, Edwards and Bruce Hough — had independent, expenditure-only political committees, or super PACs, backing them in the run-up to the primary election. The contributions to the one supporting Maloy, seemingly organized specifically for this election, appeared to reflect some of the rural support she was pursuing.

Federal Election Commission filings for Duty Service Honor show that $20,000 of its funds came from Salina-based Utah Independent Bank, and another $50,000 was donated by the Utah Agricultural Political Action Committee. The super PAC bought ads supporting Maloy, and opposing her opponents.

Matt Hargreaves, a spokesperson for the Utah Farm Bureau Federation, said in an email that the contribution is the most Utah’s AGPAC has ever given to support a single candidate in a race.

This race, he added, offered a “unique opportunity to support a candidate that we knew well and have worked with for years on issues of importance to the agriculture community. These congressional races have a great potential to impact issues of great importance to Utah, as a public land state.”

Maloy, who wrote on X that she found out about her victory while driving back from “touring rural dairy operations” in Delta, has a bachelor’s degree in agriculture from Southern Utah University, where a Future Farmers of America scholarship helped pay her tuition.

“Having a candidate from these rural areas I think empowered the rural communities to show up and be represented in ways they haven’t been before,” Hargreaves said.

According to data included in the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food’s Annual Report, approximately 21.6% of agricultural producers live in the 10 counties that fall entirely in the 2nd District. And while it’s unclear how many of the agricultural producers live within the district’s boundaries in Davis, Juab and Salt Lake counties, when their numbers are included, the 13 counties represent nearly 30% of the state’s farmers.

Maloy secured more than half of the votes in the two counties that have the highest numbers of agricultural producers in the district — Millard and Sevier.

Elections officials and politicos expected low voter turnout in the 2nd District GOP primary because it came during a special election on a short timeline, took place in an odd year and in-person voting landed on the Tuesday after Labor Day.

The last time Utah held a special Republican primary election to replace a member of Congress in an odd year, two in five active, registered Republicans cast a ballot during the primary. This year, total turnout ended up around 5 percentage points higher at 45.2%.

In Garfield County, where the largest proportion of voters showed up, county Clerk Camille Moore wasn’t surprised. She said the majority of registered Republicans in her county typically cast a ballot in primaries.

The turnout this year was higher than it was for the primary in a competitive Senate race last year, but Garfield County’s turnout in the 2020 Republican presidential primary topped both elections at 67.9%.

“From my perspective, people are invested in the elections,” Moore said. “They want to be part of it. They want to have their voice heard and they take it pretty seriously.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Congressional District 2 candidate Kathleen Riebe at the Great Salt Lake State Park, on Wednesday, Aug. 2, 2023.

Democratic state lawmaker and educator Kathleen Riebe will face Maloy in the November general election. While she doesn’t agree with Maloy about much, both of them had the same takeaway from the primary election results: Rural Utahns will play a big part in this race.

Riebe’s campaign is reacting accordingly, her campaign manager Theo Gardner-Puschak said. She has spent nearly every weekend traveling south of Salt Lake County, where she lives, and will take time during her fall break away from teaching to visit the counties she has yet to make stops in.

“Rural Utah voices matter, and regardless of where people live they want freedom from government overreach,” Riebe said in a statement. “Traveling the 2nd District and spending time with voters has been the most meaningful part of this campaign.”

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