A Utah Republican who says she voted for President Joe Biden and doesn’t toe the party line on abortion is competing to represent Utah’s 2nd Congressional District in a little-noticed special election happening Tuesday — opening up the possibility of a wildcard member of the House GOP caucus.
The race could put former U.S. Senate candidate Becky Edwards on a glide path to becoming the only House Republican who says they didn’t vote for Donald Trump in 2020. Edwards would be an extreme outlier in the GOP-controlled House, where Republicans are strongly aligned with the former president.
Edwards topped an early August poll of the three-person GOP primary field conducted by the Mormon Church-affiliated Deseret News and the University of Utah’s Hinckley Institute of Politics and released Monday, creating some national buzz around her campaign. It’s the only public survey of the race so far and showed nearly half of the respondents were undecided on whether to support Edwards, RNC committeeman Bruce Hough or attorney Celeste Maloy. The winner advances to a general election against Democratic state Sen. Kathleen Riebe.
Edwards is running to replace Republican Chris Stewart, who is leaving office this month in the middle of his sixth term due to his wife’s health issues. His resignation announcement in May set into motion a special election for a House seat extending from the southwestern corner of Utah north to Salt Lake City.
Since GOP gerrymandering eliminated Utah’s only competitive House seat in 2022, the contest to replace Stewart’s safe Republican seat had gone largely under the radar.
But Utah’s second district could end up electing one of the lower chamber’s most interesting new members: A Republican who expressed concerns about the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade and who openly urged Republicans to vote for someone besides Trump — although neither are issues Edwards is putting front and center to voters in a district that includes a broad swath of ultra-conservative rural Utah.
During her 2022 primary against hardline conservative Sen. Mike Lee, Edwards said she saw “no compelling reason why we need to revisit Roe v. Wade.” Edwards was also secretly recorded expressing concerns about a trigger law banning nearly all abortions. Edwards told the Salt Lake City Tribune’s editorial board she believes in the “sanctity of life.”
The paper also reported that Edwards encouraged Republicans to ditch Trump in 2020 and said that, unlike her opponent, Lee, she believed Trump deserved to be impeached for his role in spurring the Jan. 6, 2021, attack at the Capitol. She later told Bloomberg that Utah voters just “want to move forward” from Trump.
Her opponents and political observers cautioned against reading too much into the single poll that showed Edwards up 20 points on the rest of the field, chalking it up to her name recognition and the survey’s poor timing. A representative for Hough, the RNC member, called it a “garbage poll” with stale results, while Maloy, a former attorney in Stewart’s congressional office who won the support of Utah Republican Party delegates, said her own support is “real and growing.”
A whopping 47% of respondents were undecided, a sign that many hadn’t started paying attention to the race. The survey ended Aug. 14, the day before voters received their ballots. Utah is one of the only states that mail every active voter a ballot.
Hough, whose own campaign says it has him leading in an internal poll, has attacked each of his opponent’s voting records, writing on social media that he’s the “only candidate in this race who voted for Donald Trump in 2016 and 2020.” Maloy’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment about her voting record and the race in general.
“I think there may be a bit of a misunderstanding of the type of Republican that Becky [Edwards] is.”
– Chelsea Robarge Fife, Edwards’ campaign communications director
Edwards’ campaign brushed off the implication that she’s not solidly conservative because she doesn’t back Trump, citing her decade in the Utah House, where she led the economic development committee and helped balance the state budget during the last recession.
“I think there may be a bit of a misunderstanding of the type of Republican that Becky is,” Chelsea Robarge Fife, the campaign’s communications director, told HuffPost. “Because she has 10 years of service in the Utah House, she has a record that shows where she is and how she votes, and that’s very conservative.”
Her campaign lists a host of priorities — none of which are MAGA-coded. They include approaching immigration “as a challenging issue that deserves sensitivity and nuance” and realizing that climate change “poses both opportunities and challenges for our state.”
Robarge Fife said voters they hear from are most concerned about the economy and inflation. “People are really worried about the cost of everything. That’s something we’re hearing everywhere,” she said.
Matthew Burbank, a political science professor at the University of Utah, said Edwards likely beat her opponents in the poll due to her legislative career and name recognition from her Senate campaign, in which she garnered 30% of the vote against Lee. Maloy likely had more traction with Utah GOP delegates because of her connection to Stewart, who endorsed her as his successor.
“Becky Edwards is clearly a better-known politician, even though she wasn’t that well-loved by the delegates because they didn’t see her as conservative enough,” he said.
Even so, Utah is not necessarily a MAGA state, Burbank said. He called Utah Republicans — who elected both Lee, a Trump antagonist-turned-ally and Romney, the only Republican in the Senate who didn’t vote for Trump — “conservative, in the older sense of what that meant.” He also noted the influence of former CIA agent Evan McMullin, a protest candidate who mounted an independent presidential campaign in 2016 and another for the U.S. Senate in 2022 to siphon votes from Trump and Lee, respectively.
“Trump did not do well in the 2016 primary … and he didn’t do particularly well in the general election,” Burbank said. “Trump did better in 2020, but he also didn’t carry the state with the kind of numbers that we would expect from an incumbent Republican.”