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Special elections in Utah, Rhode Island draw a glut of candidates

Different state laws leave Democrat’s seat open longer than Republican’s

Primaries will be the same day to fill the House seats of Rhode Island Democrat David Cicilline, left, who resigned earlier this month, and Utah Republican Chris Stewart, who told his state's governor he would resign effective Sept. 15.
Primaries will be the same day to fill the House seats of Rhode Island Democrat David Cicilline, left, who resigned earlier this month, and Utah Republican Chris Stewart, who told his state's governor he would resign effective Sept. 15. (Photos by Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call, Composite by Chris Hale/CQ Roll Call)

Corrected 4:42 p.m. | In a safe Republican district in Utah, 11 GOP candidates are running to succeed Rep. Chris Stewart, who will step down in September to care for his ailing wife.

In dependably blue Rhode Island, 15 Democrats are vying for the seat vacated earlier this month by Rep. David Cicilline, who took a job with a Providence-based nonprofit.

Neither contest has generated much interest among the party committees: The seats are unlikely to flip and they won’t change the balance of power in the House.

Yet for ambitious politicians, an unexpected vacancy in a politically safe district represents a rare opportunity that could lead to a long career in Congress. 

It’s no wonder these two open seats have sparked so much interest among a backlog of political talent, some of whom have been waiting years for such a chance. “The primary is really the only competition,’’  said Matthew Harris, professor of political science at Park University in Parkville, Mo. “There’s an appeal to that, knowing that there’s basically one race to run instead of two.”

A glut of candidates can be seen as a sign of a healthy democracy, where voters, not party insiders, determine who’s on the ballot. But a big field in a primary with no runoff provision requiring the winner to win a certain percentage also means that the winners could be selected by a tiny group of voters. In recent election cycles, some crowded primaries have been won by candidates who got less than 30 percent of the vote.

Powerful connections

The special elections in Rhode Island’s 1st District and Utah’s 2nd District each have drawn candidates with impressive resumes and powerful connections. 

In Rhode Island, the field includes Lt. Gov. Sabina Matos, who was endorsed by BOLD PAC, the campaign arm of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus; Gabe Amo, a former aide to President Joe Biden who received a boost from former White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain’s endorsement; and former state Rep. Aaron Regunberg, a progressive who came within 2,000 votes of winning statewide office in 2018. A host of Democratic state lawmakers and local officials is also running. No Republican candidate has announced; Biden won the district by nearly 30 percentage points in 2020.

Among the contenders for the Utah seat are former state Rep. Becky Edwards; Celeste Maloy, a counsel in Stewart’s office; and Greg Hughes, the former speaker of the Utah House. Several third-party candidates and one Democrat — state Sen. Kathleen Riebe — have also entered the race. In 2020, President Donald Trump carried the district by 17 points.

“Safe seats are not vacated often,’’ noted a House Republican strategist. “You can always count on a laundry list of candidates already itching to run whenever a member representing a ruby red district does retire. Plus, it’s much more appealing, and far less stressful, to run every two years in a seat like this. Compare that to a swing district where you can always count on being targeted by opposing party committees and outside groups — it’s a night and day difference.”

Short time line

The candidates in both states have a short window to make their case to voters. Rhode Island will hold its primary elections to fill the 1st District vacancy on Sept. 5. Though Cicilline announced in February he would be leaving to run a state foundation, state law said the governor could not order the special election until he actually left office on June 1. The general election is scheduled for Nov. 7, which means his seat will remain open for more than five months, effectively increasing the edge Republicans have in the majority under Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif.

Utah is taking a different approach to ensure Stewart’s seat is empty a much shorter length of time after he leaves on Sept. 15. Without any change, the state’s election rules would have left the 2nd District seat vacant until next spring. But state lawmakers were scheduled to convene in a special session Wednesday to change the law to reduce that window to 60 days, a complicated process that could cost $2 million for the special election and shift the previously scheduled date of some local elections.

Under the plan, the Utah primary will also be held Sept. 5 — before Stewart even leaves office. A Republican convention to pick one candidate for the primary ballot will be held June 24. Other candidates can also get on that ballot by collecting 7,000 signatures. The general election will be held on Nov. 21.

“You often see these vacancy statutes have some flexibility and some ambiguity in them about when the election is supposed to be held and giving that discretion to the governor about how to fill that vacancy,’’ said Derek T. Muller, an election law expert at the University of Iowa.

This report was corrected to accurately reflect Celeste Maloy’s current role on Stewart’s staff.

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