What do Utah’s special congressional election results say about the GOP’s grip on Utah?

Early returns show Republican Celeste Maloy’s victory is very similar to Chris Stewart’s 2022 reelection win. So does a Democrat even have a chance?

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Republican Celeste Maloy smiles as she gives an interview on election night, Tuesday, Nov. 21, 2023. According to early returns, Republicans kept their grip on Utah's 2nd Congressional District.

The names on Utah’s 2nd Congressional District special election ballot may have been different than last year, but the results were mostly the same.

Republican Celeste Maloy currently leads Democrat Kathleen Riebe by almost 23 percentage points after Tuesday night’s unofficial, early returns. Within an hour of polls closing, Maloy had been crowned the winner.

That’s practically a carbon copy of former GOP Rep. Chris Stewart’s 2022 reelection margin of nearly 26%, raising doubts that Democrats can challenge the stranglehold Republicans have on that seat.

Maloy outpaces Riebe in 12 of the 13 counties that comprise the sprawling 2nd District, which stretches from Sugar House in Salt Lake City to St. George. Salt Lake County picked Riebe over Maloy — the same dynamic from the 2022 election. In many counties, Maloy’s advantage is similar to the numbers Stewart put up last year. Stewart carried Davis County by 33.23% in 2022. There, Maloy’s lead over Riebe sits at 32.53%.

The Republican’s performance on Tuesday is a good illustration of the GOP’s Beehive State dominance. Vince Brown, director of the Institute of Politics at Utah Tech University, says the majority of voters in the district are either Republicans or independents who lean toward the GOP, which makes a Democratic victory a long shot.

“A Republican candidate who does not make any major missteps is likely to be elected for the time being,” Brown says. “Party affiliation is currently strong in this country, and CD2 is no different.”

A former staffer in Stewart’s office, Maloy is underperforming her former boss’s 2022 results in a handful of rural counties in the 2nd District, at least in early returns. Stewart carried Juab County with 73% of the vote, while Maloy sits at 59% after Tuesday night. She’s also nearly 10 points behind Stewart in Tooele County. But that may change as those counties have counted fewer than half the number of ballots in last year’s final tally.

Salt Lake County remains blue, but any advantage was neutralized by the GOP-controlled Legislature’s allegedly gerrymandered maps put in place in 2021. Riebe currently leads Maloy by nearly 40 percentage points in Salt Lake County, almost 8 points higher than Democrat Nick Mitchell’s advantage over Stewart in 2022.

According to Utah State University political scientist Damon Cann, Maloy mirrored Stewart’s results even though she was a first-time candidate.

“For her to perform on par with her former boss shows that even without the advantages of incumbency, this district remains pretty solidly Republican,” Cann explained.

Maloy must defend her victory when the 2024 election cycle begins in earnest just over a month from now. Cann says he expects Maloy to be an even stronger candidate next year.

“There is typically a ‘sophomore surge’ for members of Congress in their second election as they run with the advantages of incumbency. Should Maloy follow this pattern in the 2nd district, her reelection effort in 2024 will be less competitive rather than more so.” Cann says.