Simmering right-wing anger over the U.S. Justice Department’s indictment of former President Donald Trump was on stark display at a Republican primary debate in Utah, where U.S. Rep. Chris Stewart’s plans to resign prompted the governor to call a special election to fill his seat in the state’s deeply conservative 2nd Congressional District.
Little daylight emerged between two Republicans vying to replace resigning U.S. Rep. Chris Stewart: former Republican National Committeeman Bruce Hough and Celeste Maloy, a former congressional attorney endorsed by Stewart.
But questions from right-leaning audience members in suburban Salt Lake City reflected how Trump — and the legal proceedings against him — continue to be an animating issue for voters.
North Salt Lake’s Kathy Sorenson asked the candidates how they would work in Congress to remove what she called corruption with the federal government’s major law enforcement agencies.
“We’re talking about the Department of Justice and the FBI being out of control and very corrupt. We can all see it. I think it’s very dangerous to our country,” Sorenson said. “To me as a citizen, I’m extremely upset and concerned. They go after the Republican side and we can’t do anything.”
Concerns from Sorenson and several other voters came a day after Trump pleaded not guilty to trying to overturn the results of his 2020 election loss and days after he was indicted by Justice Department special counsel Jack Smith. The indictment, Trump’s third this year, is the most serious he has faced to date, charging him with orchestrating a scheme to block the peaceful transfer of power.
Though Utah is one of the few states in which a federal race is underway in 2023, such questions could prove to be a harbinger for candidates running up and down next year’s Republican ticket, who are attempting to thread fine lines between espousing law and order and alienating Trump’s devoted backers.
Maloy and Hough attacked the indictments on Friday, Trump bragged during an appearance in Alabama that indictments boosted his standing in polls and would ultimately deliver him the election.
Maloy and Hough defended House Republican efforts to push back against the “weaponization” of government, specifically a GOP-led subcommittee probing the Justice Department. Like many Republican candidates nationwide, they avoided addressing details about the events following the 2020 election and instead spoke broadly about the rule of law and condemned the department’s investigation into Trump as selective.
“There’s blatant disregard for equal treatment under the law. I mean look at Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump and then Hunter Biden,” said Hough, the father of “Dancing With The Stars” veterans Julianne and Derek Hough.
Maloy said questions about the Justice Department had come up repeatedly on the campaign trail and speculated the underlying cause was anger, specifically from voters who feel unheard or left behind.
She and Hough both connected their enmity toward the Justice Department to their broader suspicions about overreaching government agencies, including those overseeing land and water issues in much of Utah.
“Congress needs to go ahead and review everything the FBI is doing and de-fund everything they’re doing is out there outside of their jurisdiction,” Maloy said.
Maloy and Hough also were of similar minds on bread-and-butter Republican issues, including government spending, energy and environmental policies and military aid to Ukraine, which they said they supported with guardrails and oversight. Though only one audience question Friday touched on the economy, Hough said economic concerns dominated his campaign trail conversations with voters.
The winner of the Sept. 5 Republican primary will likely succeed Stewart in representing Utah’s 2nd Congressional District, a sprawling jurisdiction spanning from St. George to downtown Salt Lake City that Stewart won in 2022 by more than 25 percentage points.
An unexpected resignation announcement in May by Stewart, a six-term Republican and veteran of the U.S. Air Force, set off a scramble to fill his seat. Candidates navigated Utah’s unique convention-primary system in different ways. Maloy emerged victorious at the Utah Republican Party convention in June. Hough and former state Sen. Becky Edwards each gathered 7,000 signatures to qualify for the primary ballot.
The winner will take on third party candidates and Democratic state Sen. Kathleen Riebe.
Edwards did not participate in Friday’s event organized by Maloy’s campaign because she said it conflicted with her schedule and wasn’t settled in advance with her team.
“We participated in both of the official Utah Republican Party debates, and will not be present at any of our opponent’s campaign events,” Maloy spokesperson Chelsea Robarge Fife said.