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Road map to 2024: Two special primaries pave the way for moderates

Separate paths to victory in politically opposite states showed how a center-lane approach can be effective

Gabe Amo greets a voter in Barrington, R.I., on July 31. He won the Democratic primary in the race to succeed former Rep. David Cicilline.
Gabe Amo greets a voter in Barrington, R.I., on July 31. He won the Democratic primary in the race to succeed former Rep. David Cicilline. (Daniela Altimari/CQ Roll Call)

The winners of this week’s primaries for open House seats in Utah and Rhode Island took separate paths to victory in politically opposite states, but each embraced a middle-of-the-road approach that could provide a road map for candidates in 2024. 

In Utah, Republican voters rejected both a Trump loyalist and a Trump critic who voted for Biden. Instead, they selected former House aide Celeste Maloy, who was backed by the state GOP and did not vote in 2020, to fill a seat that will soon be vacated by her former boss, Rep. Chris Stewart. Maloy, who faces six other candidates in the Nov. 21 general election, is heavily favored to win.

In a blue district in Rhode Island, Gabe Amo beat out 10 other Democrats, including a progressive endorsed by Bernie Sanders, to be the party’s pick to fill the remainder of former Rep. David Cicilline’s term after Cicilline resigned to lead a Providence-based nonprofit.

Maloy is a strong conservative who supports border protections and gun rights; Amo is a mainstream Democrat who backs new gun safety measures and access to abortion. Yet within their respective parties, they occupy the center lane and stand in contrast to their more ideologically polarizing opponents.

While these results come from low-turnout primaries in two relatively small states, the outcome suggests that middle-of-the-road candidates elsewhere have reason to be hopeful next year.

“We have several examples where the more conservative selection from our caucus was not the candidate that got the most votes,” Jason Perry, director of the University of Utah’s Hinckley Institute of Politics, said. “That’s why I say in this special election, there are other factors that seemed to be at play as well.”

‘Political force that should be recognized’

Stewart was weighing a run for Utah moderate Republican Mitt Romney’s Senate seat in 2024 before he decided to step down due to his wife’s health. Romney has not yet said if he will run for reelection but is confident in a victory if he does, despite his overt criticism of Trump and his far-right peers.

“If I run, I’m going to win. I’m not worried about that,” he told CQ Roll Call.

Perry said that though this week’s primary may not sway Romney’s decision, it does show the state’s receptivity towards moderates and, considering former state legislator Becky Edwards’ close second-place finish, Trump critics.

“The ‘Donald Trump factor’ seems to be diminishing in the state of Utah for Republicans willing to look at other candidates,” Perry said.

The three candidates offered starkly different levels of support for the former president: Maloy, who took 38 percent of the electorate this week, abstained in 2020. Edwards voted for Biden and challenged Trump sympathizer Sen. Mike Lee for his seat in 2022. The last-place candidate with 28 percent of the vote, businessman Bruce Hough, is a Trump loyalist who said he would support a pardon for the four-time indictee.

Edwards lost by a mere 3 percent when the race was called almost 24 hours after the polls closed. That shows that her criticisms of the former president were not the “one deciding factor” in her defeat and did not impact the vote by much, Perry said. 

“Maloy did not spend any time trying to defend Donald Trump either, and the fact that she won shows that that was probably not the one deciding factor as well,” he said. “So for people who are looking forward to say, in a reliably red state, how much do you need to court or defend Donald Trump? The answer is less than it used to be.”

Maloy also overcame the impact of a current lawsuit trying to remove her from the ballot because she did not have an active Utah voter registration as a Republican when she filed to run, and her last registered address in Utah was in 2018 before she came to Capitol Hill. Perry said it’s an unforced error and while it made an impact, it was obviously not fatal.

However, the clincher for Maloy’s GOP nomination was a massive mobilization from the rural parts of the district, where she grew up.

Of the Beehive State’s four districts, the 2nd District sprawls over a dozen counties, from a portion of the urban, mountainous capital of Salt Lake City to the rural red-rock home of the nation’s third-most popular national park, Zion National Park. Trump carried the district over Joe Biden by 17 percentage points in 2020, however, the district also has a legacy of flipping parties with Stewart’s predecessor being Democrat Jim Matheson.

Edward’s fatal mistake, according to Perry, was not venturing beyond areas of support in her home of northern urban and moderate areas near Salt Lake City, while Maloy campaigned across the deserts addressing the concerns of the more conservative and traditional Republicans. With a bachelor’s degree in agriculture from Southern Utah University and a law degree from Brigham Young University, Maloy spent much of her career involved with public lands policy and litigation before coming to the Hill.

“It did become a battle of the North versus the South, the urban versus the rural,” Perry said. “Rural Utah is a political force that should be recognized. When they care about an issue and they mobilize, they can impact a race.”

Past elections at almost every level of Utah government have shown similar mobilizations of rural and moderate voters. Perry nodded to 3rd District Rep. John Curtis and former Gov. Gary Herbert as proof that a nontraditional and more moderate conservative can win. More examples of successful “center-right” politics in Utah include current GOP Gov. Spencer Cox, who is chair of the National Governors Association and has kickstarted an initiative to “Disagree Better” to find common ground with those across the aisle.

While Maloy is not a moderate Republican and does follow mainstream party messaging,  compared to Edwards and Hough she emerged as the least polarized candidate on Wednesday. Whether the seat goes to her or to her Democratic rival, former state Sen. Kathleen Riebe, one of them is slated to become the only woman in Utah’s congressional delegation and the fifth in the state’s history.

‘Blueprint for the national party’

Amo would become the first Black member of Congress from Rhode Island should he beat Republican Gerry Leonard in the November special election. The GOP hasn’t held the seat in nearly three decades, and in 2020 President Joe Biden won nearly 64 percent of the vote in the 1st District, which includes most of Providence and runs along the state’s eastern coast.

Amo is a former White House aide who had never held elective office before. Yet he beat several better known political figures, including Lt. Gov. Sabina Matos, an early frontrunner whose campaign lost its footing after officials opened an investigation into fraudulent signatures collected to get her onto the primary ballot, and Aaron Regunberg, a progressive former state lawmaker whose campaign was accused of illegally coordinating with a super PAC. 

In campaign ads and while knocking on doors, Amo largely stayed above the fray, highlighting his work in the White House as deputy director of intergovernmental affairs. One of those ads also featured photos of him with former President Barack Obama, who was in the White House when Amo first landed in the Office of Intergovernmental Affairs. 

To Biden allies, Amo’s victory proves that running on the president’s economic agenda is a winning message. “For pundits who dismiss Bidenism as a force in our party, @gabeamo just won a crowded primary by centering his campaign on his experience working for — and close alliance with — @joebiden,” former White House chief of staff Ron Klain posted on X shortly after the race was called for Amo.

Amo is “a core Democrat who used affiliations with Presidents Biden and Obama to establish his credentials, but was not perceived to be progressively liberal,” said Wendy J. Schiller, a professor of political science at Brown University in Providence. 

Amo’s approach — emphasizing economic issues while pledging to find opportunities to work with Republicans on gun control and infrastructure investments — mirrors Biden’s. 

“That’s the lesson for Biden at the national level: to win independent voters in the swing states like Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Michigan, Arizona, [focus] on jobs, gun control [and] abortion rights,” but don’t go further than that, she said. “That’s a blueprint for the national party.”

Amo emphasized his personal story as the child of African immigrants who grew up in working class Pawtucket. In a diverse state where the political class remains dominated by white men of Italian or Irish ancestry, Amo’s win represents a historic shift, and could provide a model for Democrats, Schiller said.

“It’s also a blueprint for the kind of candidate that can win a congressional race in 2024: somebody who is diverse, with a very interesting backstory, who’s from the district and comes back but also plays up their Washington connections,’’ Schiller said. “He was able to position himself as a very likable, very appealing candidate with no negatives, no scandal. Being fundamentally appealing and likable as a candidate is the way you’re gonna win an election and that ideology may have its limits. That’s a lesson the Democrats can also pay very close attention to going into the next year.”

John T. Bennett contributed to this report.

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