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Replace Rep. Stewart this year? Utah will need a special session to change a law

Utah Rep. Chris Stewart talks to supporters during a Utah Republican election night party on Tuesday, June 28, 2022, in South Jordan, Utah.
George Frey
Utah Rep. Chris Stewart talks to supporters during a Utah Republican election night party on Tuesday, June 28, 2022, in South Jordan, Utah.

UPDATE: Gov. Spencer Cox has received Rep. Chris Stewart's resignation letter stating he will step down on Sept. 15. The governor has set the election to replace Stewart for November and has called a special session to align the electoral calendars. Our original story continues below.

With Utah Republican Rep. Chris Stewart’s impending resignation from Washington, some local leaders want to find his replacement sooner rather than later. Gov. Spencer Cox or the Legislature would have to call a special session to change the current election law in order for that to happen.

Under current statute, the earliest Utah’s 2nd Congressional District could vote on a replacement is next March.

Stewart hasn’t officially submitted his resignation letter to the governor, and that presents some issues. A special election primary must be held 90 days after Cox issues a proclamation that determines the dates of the special election. Cox can’t do that until Stewart turns in the resignation letter.

After a special primary, the special election day can only happen on a scheduled municipal general election, presidential primary election, regular primary election or a regular general election. According to Utah law, there must be 90 days between the special primary election and the general election.

As it stands now, the primary election for Stewart’s replacement would take place on Nov. 7, which is an election day in Utah, with the general election for the seat on March 5 – the same day Utahns vote in the 2024 presidential primary election.

The governor told the Deseret News he’s considering calling a special session to speed up the special election process. That’s exactly what Robert Axson, the chair of the Utah Republican Party, would like to happen.

“I believe that we need to have a vote in Washington representing the congressional district. I believe Utah deserves that,” he said. “I think it is absolutely paramount that we wrap up the special election in calendar year 2023 so that the new election cycle can begin without being overlapped by this special election.”

Axson would like to see that timeline shortened and additional dates added for special elections. He said with changes, there is plenty of time for a special election to conclude before the end of the year.

“I think we can absolutely, as a state, execute a fair and transparent and vigorous election process within seven months and not encumber voters with the confusion that would come from overlapping with another election,” he said.

But not all state lawmakers are on board with changing the special election law established in 2020 – at least not this quickly. Democratic state Sen. Nate Blouin believes there may be another motive behind the push for a speedier process.

“My concern here is that we are having some significant interaction from the national Republican Party. I think they are certainly worried that they have a slim majority in Congress right now,” he said.

While Republicans have a slight majority in the U.S. House, the party can’t afford to lose votes. Jim Curry, a political science professor at the University of Utah said it’s likely the Utah Republican Party is “under significant pressure from the party at the national level to find a replacement for Chris Stewart sooner rather than later,” because Republican House leadership would like 222 party members instead of 221.

Axson said he has been in conversation with the national Republican Party over the anticipated departure of Stewart, but added it isn’t “in their prerogative to dictate,” rather it’s “the state that needs to determine how to proceed.” And Axson acknowledged the political calculations of replacing Stewart quickly to keep the party strong in Washington.

“But truly for me, beyond that, it's the importance of Utah being represented in conversations and discussions and in votes back in Washington, D.C,” he said.

Blouin noted there wasn’t the same kind of rush to replace former Utah Republican U.S. Rep. Jason Chaffetz when he stepped down in 2017. Axson believes the recent change to the special election law was because of the Chaffetz resignation, but said while the law has good intentions “there's not as much flexibility as necessary to do what's best for the people of Utah,” in the scenario of Stewart.

Since this is the first time the 2020 special election rules will be put to the test, Blouin said the Legislature should see how it plays out before making alterations. He’s open to changing it but “not in the middle of the process.”

“If we need to fix it, let's do that at the proper time in place, but let's not do it under the gun and do it because of national influence and political repercussions,” he said.

Despite hesitations from state lawmakers like Blouin, Axson said the probability is “very high” that a special legislative session will be called to alter the law.

Saige is a politics reporter and co-host of KUER's State Street politics podcast
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