Republican Celeste Maloy defeated Democrat Kathleen Riebe on Tuesday night in the race to fill Chris Stewart’s empty seat in Congress, according to unofficial early returns.
Maloy led Riebe 58% to 34% after a handful of counties, including Salt Lake County, posted their early results Tuesday night about an hour after polls closed. Maloy was ahead in 12 of the 13 counties sprawling Utah’s 2nd Congressional District, while Riebe led in Democrat-heavy Salt Lake County.
“We did it,” Maloy said, declaring victory shortly after initial results came in.
“I have been running for this seat for six months and haven’t cried much,” she told supporters, fighting back tears Tuesday night. “I don’t think I’ll be able to make it anymore.”
“I’ve been really careful not to make a lot of promises because it’s tough to deliver on some of them,” she said. “But one thing I can promise is that I’m going to do everything I can to be the best representative of the people in Utah’s 2nd Congressional District.”
Maloy said she’s planning on traveling to Washington to be sworn in next week, even though the results won’t be certified until the first week of December.
While Maloy was a favorite to win, the Utah GOP got behind her campaign, putting $20,000 toward efforts to get out the vote.
“We’re not taking any of these races for granted anymore,” Rob Axson, Utah GOP Chairman said. “Even when we’re expected to win, we’re going to get behind our candidates.”
Riebe, in a statement, said she called Maloy on Tuesday night and wished her the best.
“I look forward to her advocacy on behalf of our state at the national level, and the pressing issues of water, affordable housing, and sustainable growth that face all Utahns,” Riebe said.
“This campaign has been the honor of my political career, and I look back on my travel, interactions with voters, and thousands of donors and supporters with fondness and a deep sense of gratitude,” the Democratic candidate added. “I am confident that the 2nd District’s new representative understands the need for (a) functional government that works for the people and will advocate tirelessly to keep our country, state, and democracy strong.”
The National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC), the campaign arm for Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives, quickly congratulated Maloy on her win.
“Utahns have spoken — they want a strong conservative fighting to lower inflation and get our border crisis under control — and that’s what Celeste will deliver as their congresswoman,” said NRCC Chair and North Carolina Rep. Richard Hudson in a statement.
Stewart leaves an open seat
The unusual circumstances that sent Utah voters to the polls two weeks after the rest of the country this year arose from Stewart’s surprise retirement this spring. Utah lawmakers quickly shuffled the election calendar to speed up the timeline for picking Stewart’s replacement.
Despite not holding an election night party like Maloy, who welcomed supporters to the Utah Trucking Association in West Valley City, Riebe said in an interview before polls closed that she felt “great,” and that “we’ve done everything we can.”
Winning the special election is a long shot for candidates without the Republican “R” next to their name on the ballot. Republicans account for just over half of all registered voters in Utah’s 2nd District, while 15% are Democrats. The winner will join the rest of Utah’s all-GOP congressional delegation.
Maloy, a first-time candidate and former staffer in Stewart’s office, won the delegate vote over ten opponents at June’s special GOP convention in Delta and emerged victorious in the September primary election.
[READ MORE: See all of Utah’s early 2023 election results]
She has focused much of her campaign on her rural roots, and in the primary Maloy performed best in the most rural parts of the state. In the district’s most remote counties, Maloy earned upward of 70% of the votes, and voters there turned out in the highest numbers.
Riebe, a Utah state senator and public school teacher, won the Democratic nomination over two opponents in June. A handful of third-party candidates are also on Tuesday’s general election ballot.
The only public polling on the race, conducted by Lighthouse Research for the Utah Debate Commission this fall, showed Riebe within 9 percentage points of Maloy, meaning the 2nd District race may end up closer than last year when Stewart won the seat by 25 percentage points.
Results in elections held across the country earlier this month — including a constitutional amendment protecting abortion in Ohio and wins for politicians who campaigned on abortion access in Kentucky and Virginia — also raised questions about whether the candidates’ positions on reproductive rights would play a role in the race.
Maloy has said she would support any abortion restrictions on the federal level, while Riebe has called that stance “extreme,” and has run bills in the Legislature to widen access. But in conservative Utah, where nearly two-thirds of people are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, such arguments may not have the same effect they have elsewhere. Polls on the issue are often conflicting.
As she’s toured the 13 counties in the district, Riebe said she’s encountered “people that have crossed the aisle to come meet us, people that have been frustrated with the Republican Party and have been excited to have an alternative that really has shown strength ... in my field.”
With or without a win, Riebe added, a higher percentage of votes for the Democratic candidate would give “excitement” to independents and Democrats in a crimson state.
“I don’t feel like Republicans think this is competitive,” Riebe said, “So hopefully we won’t start taking those seats for granted and we’ll keep working really hard.”
Early in the race, there were questions about whether Maloy was eligible to run as a Republican because she was an inactive voter when she filed to compete in the race. Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson, the state’s top elections official, notified Maloy about the issue with her party status and Maloy updated her registration the day after candidate filing closed.
That prompted an unsuccessful lawsuit from one of her Republican opponents seeking to disqualify her from the ballot and legislative leaders to say Henderson erred by not disqualifying Maloy from the ballot.
Maloy also said her Republican opponents had agreed to participate in a series of 10 pre-primary debates. That claim fell apart after Becky Edwards, who was running against Maloy, said she had not yet confirmed she would attend.
And this fall, The Salt Lake Tribune reported that Maloy was related to far-right, anti-government ranchers Cliven Bundy and Ammon Bundy, whose disputes over public lands have led to armed standoffs with federal agents. She shares their view that individual states should have jurisdiction over federal lands.
There won’t be much time for Maloy to celebrate. Candidates can start filing to run in next year’s election on Jan. 2, 2024, just 42 days from now. Already, there are a handful of Republicans considering a run against Maloy next year.
“There’s not much I can do about that,” Maloy said of those challenges on the horizon.
“I’m just gonna keep working. There’s not going to be any break for me. I’ll just keep doing the same thing I’ve been doing. I’ll spend a lot of time on the road. I’ll show up and talk to people. And I’ll keep bringing my message of optimism, what we need to change, and how we can improve.”