Republican Rep. Chris Stewart confirmed earlier reports on Wednesday that he would resign because of his wife’s health, though he didn't specify a timeline, only saying he'd leave office “after an orderly transition can be ensured.”
There’s little question that whoever wins the GOP primary will prevail in the forthcoming special election: Republicans carefully gerrymandered Utah's congressional map, allowing Donald Trump to score a 57-40 victory in 2020 in the 2nd District, which includes the southwestern part of the state as well as a slice of Salt Lake City. Stewart's seat, though, could remain vacant until next year unless the legislature holds a special session specifically to appropriate funds to hold the special earlier.
That's because, under state law, special elections must coincide with regularly scheduled election dates. That means the earliest the primary could take place is Nov. 7, when several municipalities go to the polls. A general election, meanwhile, would not be possible until March of 2024, when Utah holds its presidential primaries. Without action by lawmakers, then, Stewart's constituents could go unrepresented for close to a year.
Stewart’s eventual successor will succeed a hardliner who effectively won his seat in 2012 at a bitter party convention. Prior to seeking office, the future congressman made a name for himself in the Air Force by setting the record for the fastest uninterrupted flight across the world (36 hours and 13 minutes) and as the head of a consulting firm. He went on to co-write the memoir of kidnapping survivor Elizabeth Smart, though his main claim to fame in conservative circles came from his authorship of a six-part series of apocalyptic novels infused with Mormon theology. One prominent fan was Glenn Beck who, at the height of his influence, both touted Stewart’s work on Fox and reissued revised versions of his books to make them palatable to what he called a "mainstream" Christian audience.
Stewart got his chance to run for Congress two years after the 2010 census awarded the Beehive State a new House seat. At the time, candidates could only make the primary ballot by taking at least 40% at their party convention (a 2014 law eventually allowed them to gather signatures), and Stewart’s main foe in the 11-person field was former state House Speaker David Clark.
An anonymous mailer, as Mother Jones would recount later that year, made several attacks on Stewart, but it attracted little notice until the day of the convention when a little-known contender named Milt Hanks held it up as evidence that there was an “Anybody-But-Chris” group determined to make sure the author was defeated. Several other hopefuls did indeed endorse Clark, which led Stewart’s backers to shout, “The prophecy has been fulfilled! The prophecy has been fulfilled!”
Fueled by this supposed conspiracy, more than 60% of convention delegates gave their backing to Stewart, allowing him to avoid a primary altogether since no other candidate could hit the necessary 40% threshold. But the gathering sparked plenty of angry feelings. Several defeated foes claimed that Stewart’s team had produced the offending mailer precisely to cultivate a backlash, an allegation Stewart denied. But the ill will did nothing to stop him from easily prevailing in the general election, and he never struggled to hold his seat in ensuing years.
Soon enough, the congressman, whom one former GOP politician labeled “a certified nutcase” before he was even elected, made a name for himself as an ardent conservative. He became a Trump ally despite deriding him as “our Mussolini” during the 2016 primaries, prompting the new administration to consider him for secretary of the Air Force after the elections.
Stewart, however, remained in the House, and later joined the majority of his caucus in voting to overturn Joe Biden’s 2020 win. He did break from party orthodoxy last year when he backed the Respect for Marriage Act to protect same-sex and interracial marriages, though he otherwise remained a supporter of far-right causes. He even appeared ready to consider a promotion earlier this year: In April, Stewart declined to rule out a primary challenge to Sen. Mitt Romney. His resignation, though, almost certainly ensures that won't happen.
Anyone hoping to succeed Stewart can try to follow in his footsteps by competing at their party convention for a spot on the primary, though they now also have the option of instead collecting 7,000 valid signatures. Under the state’s special election law, though, only one candidate can advance out of the convention instead of the maximum of two that are normally allowed.