With strong backing from Utah’s rural voters, Donald Trump supporter Celeste Maloy held a slim lead in a Republican special congressional primary — but the race was still too early to call Wednesday.
Whoever triumphs in the GOP primary will be heavily favored to win November’s general election, and the race has thrown a spotlight on the rural-urban divide among Republicans in the sprawling district, which encompasses large swathes of southern and western Utah as well as northern Salt Lake City.
Many votes had yet to be counted, with thousands of mail-in votes expected to come in over the next two weeks.
Becky Edwards, a former state lawmaker who’s been critical of Trump, was leading in two urban counties. But Maloy, who was chief legal counsel to U.S. Rep. Chris Stewart, had the overall edge with support from rural areas. Stewart is stepping down next week because his wife is ill.
Maloy, who has a bachelor’s degree in agriculture from Southern Utah University and once worked as a U.S. Department of Agriculture soil conservationist, credited her campaign’s focus on rural areas.
“I did debates in the rural counties. I showed up and held events in the rural counties,” Maloy said in an interview Wednesday. “We decided early on that our strategy was going to be to win the rural counties, and then get as much as we could in the more urban counties.”
Her message against “government overreach” resonated with rural voters, she said.
After Edwards’ early lead evaporated Tuesday night, she briefly thanked supporters before wrapping up an election night party in Salt Lake City. As they chanted “Becky, Becky,” Edwards said she felt optimistic but would have to wait for more vote counting.
On Wednesday, Edwards said urban and rural voters alike have expressed their desire for a “commonsense approach” to issues such as high housing costs and inflation.
“People are tired of political partisanship and they want to see someone who can get things done,” Edwards told KSL-TV.
Maloy had a roughly 2% lead in the results counted as of Wednesday, a margin of about 1,400 votes. In past races, Utah hasn’t counted all votes on Election Day and has left about 30% to count in the days afterward.
Almost all ballots in Utah are cast by mail, and they can arrive as late as Sept. 19 and be counted, so long as they are postmarked by Election Day.
A third candidate, businessperson Bruce Hough, a committee member for the Republican National Committee for over a decade, trailed by a wide margin. A woman is therefore likely to win the office in the special general election on Nov. 21, with the GOP winner favored over Democratic state Sen. Kathleen Riebe.
Stewart, a six-term Republican and veteran of the U.S. Air Force, set off a scramble to fill his seat when he announced in May he was resigning because of his wife’s illness He plans to step down Sept. 15 after a decade in office.
Mead Gruver, The Associated Press