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Special Election Primary Preview: RI-01 & UT-02

Today, competitive Democratic and Republican primaries are taking place in Rhode Island’s 1st and Utah’s 2nd congressional districts, respectively. These districts, which voted for their favored Presidential candidate by substantial margins in 2020, are not expected to host competitive general elections in November. Therefore, the winners of tonight’s primaries are almost certain to enter Congress after winning their party’s nominations.

While the partisan control of neither seat is expected to change, the outcome of today’s primary elections could impact the ideological makeup of each party’s House caucus. Given the inherent uncertainty in predicting primary winners, particularly in special elections, only potential scenarios in each district will be explored.


Rhode Island’s 1st district is located in the eastern half of the state. It runs southward from post-industrial mill towns through Providence and the Hispanic enclave of Central Falls to the wealthy towns along the Narragansett Bay. Like most districts in southern New England, RI-01 has comfortably backed each Democratic presidential nominee since 2000.

The largest municipalities in the district are Providence (split), Pawtucket, Woonsocket, and East Providence. Together they make up roughly 45% of the vote. The first three, combined with tiny Central Falls, are home to the largest minority communities in the district. The fourth, East Providence, is heavily white but also contains a prominent historical Cape Verdean community. 

The four main candidates running to replace Democrat David Cicilline are former state representative Aaron Regunberg, state senator Sandra Cano, Gabe Amo, and Lieutenant Governor Sabina Matos. Businessman Don Carlson was also a top contender in the race early on, but had to drop out in August after allegations came to light that he had made romantic overtures to a student while on the faculty at Williams College.

In Carlson’s absence, Regunberg has taken the lead in terms of funds raised and even led in a recent internal poll commissioned by Amo’s campaign. Endorsed by Bernie Sanders and Our Revolution, he has positioned himself as the main progressive in the race. While Cicilline himself has not endorsed any potential successor, his uncle, a former state legislator, endorsed Regunberg. (Regunberg’s own uncle is Illinois Congressman Brad Schneider).

Sabina Matos and Gabe Amo have also gathered a slew of endorsements to compete with Regunberg. Matos, who emigrated from the Dominican Republic, is backed by a handful of House members and two PACs supporting Latino candidates (CHC Bold PAC and Latino Victory Fund). Amo, who worked as an aide in the Obama and Biden administrations, has kept pace with Regunberg in terms of fundraising and has the support of the Congressional Black Caucus.

Matos has notably seen her momentum dampened in recent weeks following a scandal over fraudulent nomination petition signatures. Nearly half of the signatures submitted by her campaign ended up being invalidated.

The winner of tonight’s primary is really anyone’s bet, but Regunberg’s path to victory would rely on white, liberal voters punching above their weight in an otherwise low-turnout election. If any of the other three main contenders pull off a victory, as 538 noted in their preview of the race, it would mark the first time Rhode Island has elected a person of color to Congress.


Utah’s 2nd district spans from Salt Lake City (SLC) and its surrounding communities to St. George, covering the southwestern half of the state. As is typical of many western districts, most of UT-02’s land area is sparsely populated. The district’s rural counties, for example, are much more Republican than its overall partisanship, but only account for about a third of the district’s vote.

55% of UT-02’s population resides in Salt Lake and Davis counties, with Salt Lake City alone accounting for 16% of the district’s total population, but only 9.4% of the district’s Trump vote. The city leans heavily Democratic, with both Hispanic-majority neighborhoods and a white, affluent, highly-educated liberal contingent in the neighborhoods of Yalecrest, Sugar House, and Windsor Circle. Biden won every precinct in the city, with some giving him upwards of 80% of the vote.

Additionally, UT-02 includes communities south and west of Salt Lake City, such as Magna, West Valley City, South Salt Lake, and Millcreek. The first two are much more Republican than SLC as a whole, and have a mixed population of Hispanics and whites with low college attainment rates. On the other hand, Millcreek, and to some extent, South Salt Lake, resemble the whiter, well-educated, and heavily Democratic neighborhoods of SLC.

A suburban Republican base resides north of Salt Lake City in Davis County. Most communities there have above-average undergraduate attainment rates and are overwhelmingly white, but they have traditionally leaned heavily Republican. 

Washington County, home to St. George, is another crucial area in UT-02, accounting for 22% of the district’s population. Like other parts of the district, the population is primarily white, but with lower college attainment rates. This county is heavily Republican and stuck with Mike Lee in 2022. It casts enough votes to make the 2nd noncompetitive for a Democrat in a general election. In 2018, when Chris Stewart had the closest re-election of his career (17 points), he only won the non-Washington County portion of the district by 8. Similarly, in 2022, roughly 10 points out of Stewart’s 25-point margin came from his Washington County vote advantage.

The last area worth mentioning are all the remaining rural counties in between Salt Lake/Davis counties and Washington County. Important cities here include Cedar City (Iron County), Tooele (Tooele County), and Fillmore (Millard County). Similar to Washington County, all of these counties voted heavily for Lee in 2022. This area is overwhelmingly rural and low-population, with Washington County by itself casting more votes in 2022 than all 10 of these counties. But the near-unanimous Republican lean of this region means that primary votes here are still important despite the sparse population distribution.

In the Republican primary to replace Chris Stewart in this Trump +16 district, three candidates are vying for the nomination: former state representative Becky Edwards, Stewart’s lead counsel Celeste Maloy, and former Utah GOP chair Bruce Hough. Edwards, a former Davis County legislator who challenged Senator Mike Lee in the 2022 primary and voted for Joe Biden in 2020, is considered the most moderate Republican in the race. She has outpaced her opponents in raising and spending and leads with 32% in the only poll of the contest.

Maloy and Hough are viewed as more conservative Republicans. Stewart has endorsed Maloy, who also won the Republican convention, known for its more reactionary and conservative stances compared to the actual primary electorate. Notably, Mitt Romney lost the state convention vote in his 2018 Senate campaign but went on to win the primary comfortably.

This chart illustrates the total number of Republican votes cast in different parts of UT-02 in the 2022 Senate primary, showing the distribution of Republican voters across the district. While the Wasatch Front counties of Salt Lake and Davis accounted for a significant share of the vote, there are two other large vote centers that boost conservatives: St. George’s Washington County and the ten rural counties. Looking at the 2022 Senate primary results, we see that Senator Mike Lee received 64% of the vote against Becky Edwards and another challenger. Conservatives Maloy and Hough could potentially split that 64% baseline, though, providing an opening for Edwards.

If Becky Edwards were to win, she would need to perform exceptionally well among Republicans in her “home base” of Davis and Salt Lake counties. It’s particularly expected that she would resonate with her former constituents in communities like North Salt Lake and Bountiful, which are home to numerous well-educated registered Republican voters. Many of these voters stuck with Trump in 2020, but voted against Mike Lee in 2022 and may have grown wary of pro-Trump Republicans more generally. Edwards performed best with these voters in her 2022 Senate primary run, and without a strong showing among them tonight, her chances of winning the primary would be slim.

We don’t expect her to do as well in Salt Lake County. While she will certainly resonate with Republicans in the affluent white parts of SLC and UT-02’s portion of Millcreek like she did in the 2022 Senate primary, there simply aren’t many GOP voters in either. Most of the county’s Republican base in the district resides in West Valley City and Magna, where voters have lower educational attainment and average income levels, demographics less likely to support Edwards over her more pro-Trump competitors. Keep in mind that Hough, who is from the same part of the district, could cut into Edwards’ margins in both Salt Lake and Davis counties.

Even if Edwards hits the benchmarks she needs in the Salt Lake-Davis County geographic base, it makes up neither a majority of the district nor one of 2020 Trump voters. To secure a win, Edwards would also need to attract a decent level of support in the rest of the district. Even if Maloy and Hough split the anti-Edwards vote evenly districtwide, her victory would be by no means guaranteed. Maloy could also outpace Hough in and around Washington County, as she comes from the southern portion of the district.

One factor that could potentially benefit Edwards is educational polarization. Well-educated voters, who in a Republican primary would favor a more moderate candidate, have historically seen higher rates of turnout in special elections and primary elections. A combination of these two factors would help Edwards by producing a more favorable electorate districtwide. 

Should Edwards emerge as the winner, she would be strongly favored to win the general election in the fall. This would make her the only member of the Republican House caucus to have publicly voted for Joe Biden in 2020, which could lead to friction between her and her colleagues.

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