DemDaily: September’s Special Elections!

August 30, 2023

Special elections to Congress occur when a legislator passes away, retires or resigns before the completion of his or her full term. Depending on the specific state laws governing vacancies, a governor can either call for a special election within the same calendar year or wait until the next regularly scheduled election.

On average there are 15 special elections per two-year US House congressional cycle, but the 118th Congress is off to a slow start with just three on the books to date. In February, Democrat Jennifer McClellan prevailed in Virginia's Fourth Congressional District election to succeed the late Congressman Donald McEachin (D). The other two -- coming up next Tuesday, September 5 -- are in Rhode Island and Utah.

Traditionally, special elections serve as a barometer of the mood of the electorate toward a certain political party -- or ideological faction within a party -- at that point in the election cycle.

Rhode Island's First Congressional District Special Election Primary
Eleven Democrats and two Republicans are vying to represent Rhode Island's 1st Congressional District -- vacant since Democrat David Cicilline, first elected in 2010, stepped down in June to become President and CEO of the Rhode Island Foundation.

The heavily blue seat, which winds along the Massachusetts border through Newport and Bristol Counties and encompasses most of Providence, has been held by Democrats for nearly three decades. Cicilline was reelected in 2022 with 64.0% of the vote, and Joe Biden won the district with 63.8% in 2020.

The outcome of the crowded Democratic primary is likely to determine the fate of the seat in November and for years to come.

Top-tier candidates include attorney and former State Representative Aaron Regunberg, running as the progressive choice, who narrowly lost the 2018 primary for Lieutenant Governor to current Governor Dan McKee. Regunberg has the endorsements of Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders (I) and Congressmen Jamie Raskin (D-MD) and Ro Khanna (D-CA), as well as the Congressional Progressive Caucus, the Working Families Party, major environmental organizations, the Communications Workers of America Local 1400, state legislators and actress Jane Fonda.

Regunberg leads the fundraising race with approximately $630,000 as of August 17, followed by former Biden Deputy Director of the White House Office of Intergovernmental Affairs Gabe Amo with $604,000. Amo has the support of the Congressional Black Caucus PAC, United Auto Workers Rhode Island and former White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain.

Lieutenant Governor Sabina Matos, who was born in the Dominican Republic and in 2022 was elected Rhode Island's first Black statewide officeholder, has raised $579,000 -- along with a boost of more than $600,000 in outside TV ad spending by the Congressional Hispanic Caucus BOLD PAC. EMILY's List, the Latino Victory Fund, the centrist New Democrat Coalition, the Laborers' International Union and the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades District Council 11 have also endorsed Matos, as have two dozen state senators, representatives and mayors, and actress Eva Longoria.

An early favorite, Matos' star may have been dimmed by an ongoing Rhode Island Board of Elections probe into fraudulent signatures submitted by her campaign to qualify for the ballot -- which Matos has blamed on signature vendors who are now facing charges.

State Senator Sandra Cano has been endorsed by the National Education Association Rhode Island PAC, AFT/Rhode Island Federation of Teachers and Health Professionals, and United Nurses and Allied Professionals.

She is backed by a cadre of legislators and local officials, including the mayors of Pawtucket and North Providence, as well as former primary opponent and renewable energy investor Donald Carlson. She had raised $307,000 as of August 17.

Other Candidates: Providence City Councilor John Goncalves, State Senator Ana Quezada, State Representative Stephen Casey, former State Representative Spencer Dickinson, 2022 Republican nominee for the 2nd CD-turned Democrat Allen Waters, insurance software executive Stephanie Beauté and former Naval War College professor Walter Berbrick are also on the ballot.

Two candidates are vying for the Republican nomination. Operations executive and retired US Marine Corps Colonel Gerry Leonard Jr., who has the endorsement of the Rhode Island Republican Party, had raised $122,221 as of August 16. Former Middletown Town Councilor Terri Flynn is also running.

The latest public polling, an August 15-17, 2023 survey conducted by Global Strategies Group, showed Regunberg at 28%, Amo at 19%, Matos and Cano at 11% each, "Other" 8% and "Undecided" at 15%. Don Carlson, who secured 8% of the vote in the poll, dropped out of the race August 27.

Utah's Second Congressional District Special Election Primary
A special election will take place in Utah's Second Congressional District next Tuesday to succeed seven-term incumbent Republican Chris Stewart, who is resigning September 15, 2023 due to his wife's ongoing health issues.

Governor Spencer Cox (R) designated next Tuesday, September 5, for the primary and November 21, 2023 for the general election.

Stewart's congressional legal counsel Celeste Maloy, who was endorsed by the outgoing Congressman, defeated eleven candidates to win the GOP nomination on the fifth ballot at the June 24 Republican convention. Maloy will still be challenged by Becky Edwards and Bruce Hough, who qualified for the primary ballot by collecting signatures.

Edwards, a former State Representative, placed second in the Republican primary for US Senate in 2022, receiving 30% of the vote, and Hough, a political consultant and business owner, is a former Utah Republican Party Chair and Republican national committeeman. Both Edwards ($679,000) and Hough ($539,000) significantly outraised Maloy's $307,000 as of August 16.

According to an August 7-14 Deseret News/Hinckley Institute of Politics poll, 47% of likely Republican primary voters were still undecided, with 32% of respondents saying they would vote for Edwards, compared to 11% for Hough and 9% for Maloy (MOE: +/- 4.51%).

The winner will face State Senate Minority Whip Kathleen Riebe, who previously served as a member of the Utah State Board of Education and swept the Democratic nomination at the June 28 party convention. Riebe, who is unchallenged in the primary, had raised close to $95,000 as of August 16.

Utah's 2nd CD, which serves Salt Lake City and the largely rural western and southern portions of the state, delivered a 60% to 34% victory for Stewart in 2022, and a 57.6% win for Donald Trump in 2020.

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Kimberly Scott

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Sources: Providence Journal, Roll Call, RI Current, American Prospect, Ballotpedia, Deseret News, CNN, Providence Business News

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