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Utah’s primary between Celeste Maloy and Colby Jenkins is destined for a recount

Utah’s 2nd Congressional district debate between Colby Jenkins and Congresswoman Celeste Maloy at the Eccles Broadcast Center at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, June 10, 2024.
Scott G Winterton
/
Deseret News, pool
Utah’s 2nd Congressional district debate between Colby Jenkins and Congresswoman Celeste Maloy at the Eccles Broadcast Center at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, June 10, 2024.

For Utah politicos, it’s been a lingering question since the end of June: Who will be the GOP nominee for Utah’s 2nd Congressional District?

The primary race between Rep. Celeste Maloy and Colby Jenkins has been too close to call since then. As counties submitted certifications on July 9, Maloy’s lead dwindled to 214, which is within ballot recount territory. Candidates can request a recount if the margin shrinks to 0.25%. The vote difference currently sits at 0.20%.

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With the results still so close, both candidates have confidence in a recount, but in different ways.

Maloy reiterated her confidence in county clerks and their teams for getting the vote count right the first time. For her part, she said she would “play by the rules” if Jenkins requested a recount since the vote difference is within the threshold.

“Two hundred and fourteen votes is pretty close. But it's about 213 votes more than we need to win,” she told reporters after counties certified their votes. “I know we’re in potential recount territory, but I don't anticipate the recount will change the outcome.”

Jenkins does plan to request a recount and he’s “very hopeful” about the outcome.

“Two weeks ago, on election night, we were down almost 2,000 votes,” he told KUER. “Today [July 9], we started down over 300 votes. And right now we sit at 214 behind at 0.2% behind an incumbent.”

He added the goal is to “make sure every eligible vote has the opportunity to be counted” after what he considers “irregularities” with some ballots in various counties.

Of the 13 counties in the district, Jenkins’ biggest base of support has been Washington County along with more modest leads in Tooele and Juab. Maloy has led in the other counties, including populous Salt Lake and Davis.

Jenkins’ strong showing with Washington County GOP voters is a stark contrast from their votes during the 2023 special congressional election to replace Rep. Chris Stewart after he stepped down. Maloy, a former staffer of Stewart, campaigned on her rural Southern Utah roots, stating she would advocate for the region in D.C. While she handily won Washington County in the special primary election with 44% of the vote, her support in this election waivered.

Gary Henderson of St. George supported Maloy last year but switched to Jenkins this time. Part of that was a strategic decision, he said. Back in 2023’s three-way race, the choice was between Maloy, Becky Edwards and Bruce Hough. He believed Maloy had the best chance to prevent Edwards, a less conservative candidate, from winning the nomination.

This time around, the choice between Maloy and Jenkins, both conservative candidates, was more straightforward. He said Jenkins’ message resonated with residents.

“Colby came across absolutely stronger, and this is why Washington County resoundingly voted for [him].”

Specifically, Henderson said he valued Jenkins’ military experience and his platform’s focus on supporting the Constitution and closing the U.S. border with Mexico.

Maloy got a fair shake over the past several months while she worked in the U.S. House, Henderson said, but her voting record didn’t line up with how he hoped she would represent the county. For example, he cited her decision to vote with Democrats and other Republicans in favor of the omnibus funding package that averted a government shutdown earlier in 2024.

To him, that bill spent too much money without doing enough to advance conservative issues. It also signaled that Maloy was playing the D.C. politics game more than standing up for what Washington County GOP voters want.

“There's too many politicians that sit back and say, ‘Oh, well, I did this, and I did that.’ Well, these aren't the right things. We need the right things done,” he said. “At some point, we have to start saying, ‘Enough is enough.’ We can't just have people continually scratching each other's back politically, just for the sake of their own careers.”

In the recent election, both candidates were also endorsed by prominent politicians. Jenkins won the praise of Utah Sen. Mike Lee. And a week before the primary election, former President Donald Trump backed Maloy.

Henderson, however, said “not all endorsements are created equal.” His feeling is that Lee took the time to get to know Maloy and Jenkins, while he suspects Trump’s endorsement might have just been the result of advisors in his ear.

“Do you think Trump spoke to Celeste prior to his endorsement? … He would not have had that conversation,” Henderson said. “There was no deep vetting of both sides.”

Morgan Lyon Cotti, associate director of the Hinckley Institute of Politics at the University of Utah, said it’s rare for a member of a state’s congressional delegation to endorse another incumbent’s challenger. That put Maloy on the defensive. And combined with Jenkins’ messaging that presented him as the local “Dixie” candidate going up against a D.C. politician, it seemed to have swayed a chunk of southwest Utah voters.

“It didn't get him across the finish line, but it made him so competitive in Washington County, that it made it so Maloy had to win just about everywhere else,” she said.

“To me, the story is the power of Washington County.”

The timing of the endorsements likely played a bigger role with voters than whether they preferred Lee or Trump, said Washington County GOP Chair Lesa Sandberg. Jenkins got Lee’s stamp of approval in April before the state GOP Convention, where he won more delegate votes than Maloy. By the time Trump threw his weight behind Maloy in June, it was too late.

“I think Mike Lee’s endorsement had a big effect. I don’t think Trump’s endorsement did,” Sandberg said. “It looks to me like people had already decided how they were going to vote and Trump's endorsement didn't change anybody's mind.”

Jenkins’ strong showing in Washington County also shows that the caucus-convention system is working the way it’s intended to, she said. After Jenkins won the state convention, delegates came back to southwest Utah and went door-to-door talking with voters about why he was the best choice. In her decades of experience in local politics, Sandberg said she’d never seen such a big grassroots push from delegates, and it showed up in the results.

“I think it's working here. It doesn't look like it works so well in the other counties, but we have very active delegates in Washington County.”

While the path to getting to a threshold for a recount has been long and winding, Jenkins hasn’t been inactive. He filed a lawsuit in Utah’s Fifth District Court in St. George over the county’s uncured ballots. A judge denied his request for the list of more than 400 ballots that needed additional verification. The ruling affirmed that the county clerk correctly interpreted Utah election law in his decision to not release the list.

Another potential issue in Iron County threatened to delay the county canvass on July 9. Commissioner Paul Cozzens said more than 400 Iron County ballots were postmarked after the June 24 deadline, although it seems to be an error with the United States Postal Service. Ballots from the county were sent to Las Vegas to be processed and returned, where they were postmarked “several days late” despite voters dropping off their ballots to a Utah post office on time. In a July 5 Facebook post, he said he couldn’t in good conscience vote to certify.

However, the county commission ultimately certified the primary election results.

Weber County Clerk Ricky Hatch, who certified the election results at 10 a.m. on July 9 but is not in the 2nd Congressional District, said he’s “not sure” if state code addresses a scenario where a county does not certify the election results. He said the closest verbiage he’s found in code on the matter “seems to give the state board of canvassers authority to certify even if they don't have all of the formal results from the counties.”

Utah election code outlines that the “state board of canvassers may not withhold the declaration of the result or any certificate of election because of any defect or informality in the returns of any election if the board can determine from the returns, with reasonable certainty, what office is intended and who is elected to it.”

The Lt. Governor’s Office did not return KUER’s phone call seeking to clarify state statute.

Even though all 29 counties had a July 9 deadline to certify the results, the Lt. Governor's Office has two weeks to certify the multi-county races, set for July 22, and until Aug. 1 to certify the election results from each county.

David Condos is KUER’s southern Utah reporter based in St. George.
Saige is a politics reporter and co-host of KUER's State Street politics podcast
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