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Sep 5, 2023, 5:15pm EDT
politicsNorth America

Two safe-seat House contests today could tell us a lot about each party

David DelPoio / USA TODAY NETWORK
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The News

It’s election day in two very different parts of America — deep red western Utah and deep blue eastern Rhode Island, where Republicans and Democrats will start to fill two vacancies in the House.

The race in Rhode Island’s 1st Congressional District, which saw paltry turnout before today, gives progressive Democrats their first and last chance this year to gain power in Congress. Joe Biden carried this part of the state, from Providence to the Massachusetts border, by 29 points.

“This a deep blue district,” said Aaron Regenburg, a 33-year-old ex-state representative, at his campaign stop with Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders last week, promising to “push the Democratic Party to be the best version of itself that it can be.”

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Regunberg got early backing from the Congressional Progressive Caucus, and out-raised the field, helped by a super PAC largely funded by his father-in-law. His rivals spent the last days of early voting on the attack, to get past him; Lt. Gov. Sabina Matos, former White House advisor Gabe Amo, and state Sen. Sandra Cano had the most money and local support in the 11-way race.

Former Rep. David Cicllline, who retired on May 31, hasn’t endorsed any of the candidates. In Utah, the other race of the day, Rep. Chris Stewart has backed a successor in his 2nd Congressional District: Celeste Maloy, his former legal counsel, who he endorsed days before the local GOP convention.

That helped Maloy get the party convention’s backing, and automatic ballot access. Two other Republicans petitioned their way on: nutritional supplement seller and party activist Bruce Hough, and former state Rep. Becky Edwards. Both loaned their campaigns significant amounts of money and out-spent Maloy, running conservative ads in a district Donald Trump carried by 17 points and Stewart won by 26.

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Polls close at 8 p.m. eastern time in Rhode Island; polls close in Utah at 8 p.m. mountain time, 10 p.m. eastern.

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David’s view

Neither of these races will tell us much about the next general election, but they’re heat-checks for the factions fighting for control of their parties.

In Rhode Island, that’s the party’s left wing and its more business-friendly center-left — and multiple non-white candidates arguing for better representation, in one of New England’s most racially diverse districts. (Nearly one-third of Providence residents were born outside the United States.) Where progressives have won, they’ve typically nominated non-white candidates who can reach outside their base of college-educated white voters. Regunberg would be an exception, and his rivals have been direct about that, several of them using their time in a final WJAR-hosted debate to ask why he didn’t step aside for a woman of color.

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“He leverages the plight of Black and brown communities for his own selfish benefit,” said Stephanie Beauté, who’d posed with a billboard truck that circled the Sanders rally that attacked the senator for not endorsing a minority candidate.

“Identity and representation matter a lot,” said Regunberg, describing his past work to elect non-white and female candidates — and pointing to his endorsement that day from New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

Regunberg’s political priorities came under fire, too, with every rival saying they’d have voted for the pre-summer debt limit deal and warning that he’d vote with the “squad” of progressives who opposed it.

There’s no runoff in Rhode Island, and the size of this field could produce a winner with around a third of all votes. Some of them have reliable bases: Cano in Pawtucket, conservative Democrat Stephen Casey in Woonsocket.

The Republicans running in western Utah have less political experience; Edwards served four terms in a North Salt Lake City district, then challenged Sen. Mike Lee in last year’s GOP primary. She ran strongest around the city, where support for Donald Trump is lowest, and where her 2020 vote for Joe Biden wasn’t as much of an outlier.

After the leak of the Dobbs decision in June 2022, Edwards criticized it, and an operative for Project Veritas got a non-committal answer from her about abortion. But Hough and Maloy haven’t had the chance to ask her about it. Edwards skipped 10 debates with them, held in every county, and has avoided media interviews.

Edwards, nevertheless, led the field in the only public polling of the race, and has a path to victory — she’s best known in Salt Lake and Davis counties, which could cast two-fifths of the total vote. (Ballot returns in Davis have out-paced the rest of the state so far.)

Turnout has lagged across more conservative, rural western Utah, though both Hough and Maloy used last week’s debate on KSL to align themselves with House conservatives. Both said they were open to opposing a new government funding bill unless it was negotiated on GOP terms.

“If there are no spending cuts, then I’m going to have to vote against it,” said Maloy.

“I’m not opposed to seeing the government take a little vacation,” said Hough.

But no one who wins today will be around for this month’s debt standoffs. The nominees will have to wait until November elections — and then defend their seats again, in primaries next year.

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Notable

  • In HuffPost, Daniel Marans looks at how the Rhode Island race will “test the left’s ability to elect one of its own to Congress.”
  • In the American Prospect, Luke Goldstein explains why not every Rhode Island progressive was comfortable supporting Regunberg, including bitter feelings over a primary in which Regunberg backed a progressive incumbent and the left-wing Rhode Island Political Cooperative backed a vaccine skeptic.
  • In Business Insider, Bryan Metzger ponders what it would mean if Edwards wins in Utah: “Given House Republicans’ narrow majority, her vote would become all-important for the party to pass its legislative agenda.”
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