Mormon distaste for Trump could hurt GOP candidates in 2018

The radical left is more of a threat than Republicans who can work with President Trump.
The radical left is more of a threat than Republicans who can work with President Trump. TNS

In 2016, some of the Republican Party’s most reliable voters — Mormons — rebuked candidate Donald Trump at the ballot box. Two years later, many are so uneasy with President Trump that they could sit out the midterms, jeopardizing GOP candidates in several races critical to Republican control of Washington.

Indeed, with just 13 weeks before the November congressional elections, Mormon activists and operatives are warning that members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints might stay home, denying Republican candidates not just their votes but their typically robust financial and volunteer support.

“Mormons were more of a reliable voting bloc before the Trump era. And now things are more up in the air,” said Steven Conger, a Nevada Republican political strategist who is Mormon. “You see that with both voters and donors.”

Mormons are a small but significant portion of the GOP base. Although less than two percent of the U.S. population is Mormon, they typically vote overwhelmingly for the GOP. According to a 2014 Pew Research Center study, 70 percent of Mormons identified as Republicans, more than any other religious group in the country.

While many Mormons appreciate the tax cuts Trump signed into law, the conservatives he has nominated to the Supreme Court, and the outreach he’s made to their community, many can’t overlook his hardline immigration positions, divisive rhetoric and or the Stormy Daniels scandal.

That’s raised concerns for Republicans running for office this fall, especially in the Mountain West, where the lion’s share of the country’s LDS population is located.

Arizona, Nevada and Utah are hosting competitive Senate, gubernatorial or House races, if not all three, in November. In an election year where Democratic enthusiasm is sky high, Republicans can ill-afford to lose even a fraction of their core base.

“If it’s a close election and turnout is down among Mormon Republicans, that could make a difference in a number of states,” said Quin Monson, a consultant for several GOP campaigns in Utah who has studied the LDS vote extensively at Brigham Young University.

After George W. Bush won 80 percent of the LDS vote in 2004 and Mitt Romney, himself a Mormon, won 78 percent in 2012, Mormon support for Trump dropped to 61 percent in 2016, according to exit polls. (Data on the Mormon vote was not available for 2008.)

Not much has changed since November 2016. Recent Gallup tracking poll data shows that while 87 percent of Republicans nationally approve of Trump’s job performance, just 61 percent of Mormons do.

Following Wednesday night's prayer service and choir service, members of First Baptist Church of Charlotte offered their opinions of presidential candidates Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton.

And Monson and several other Mormons noted that figure doesn’t tell the whole story, adding that it would be much higher at this point for most other Republican presidents.

“You might think at first glance Mormons are overwhelmingly pro-Trump, but they’re not overly enthusiastic about Trump,” Monson said. “Some Mormons are a little lost. They’re not Democrats, but they’re not sure of where the Republican Party is going.”

Take Rick Roskelley. A Mormon GOP activist from Las Vegas, he had been attending caucus meetings and donating to GOP candidates since the Nixon administration. But after Trump won the 2016 Republican presidential nomination, Roskelley changed his voter registration from Republican to Libertarian and cast his ballot for Gary Johnson.

Heading into the midterms, Roskelley isn’t sure how he’s going to vote. But given Trump’s current positions on immigration and trade, he said he’s going to give third-party candidates a harder look and would even consider voting for a moderate Democrat.

“[Trump] has brought to light an element of the Republican Party that I don’t really care for. They used to have a small voice, but now they have a much bigger voice,” Roskelley said. “So right now I have no inclination to go back to the Republican Party.”

Immigration is a particularly important issue for Mormons, many of whom have ancestors who settled out west to escape religious persecution in the 1800s. The Mormon church, which typically stays out of politics, even released a statement earlier this summer saying it was “deeply troubled” by the Trump administration’s policy that separated immigrant families at the U.S.-Mexico border.

Unlike Roskelley, others are willing to look past that aspect of the Trump presidency. West Allen, another Mormon Republican activist from Las Vegas, said that while he doesn’t agree with everything Trump does, he believes that Trump has been positive for the country on the whole, and is certainly preferable to a Democratic administration.

“They look at Trump like a brother or child,” Allen said of the fellow members of his congregation. “When he does something that’s untoward, we encourage him to do better. But we don’t kick him out of the family.”

Trump has made an effort to be a member of that family since taking office. He met with LDS leaders during a visit to Utah last December. On July 24, he released a statement commemorating Pioneer Day, which celebrates the arrival of the first Mormons to the Salt Lake Valley. And members of the church have praised his administration’s “religious liberty task force.”

“Politically, they’ve actually done a really smart job of reaching out to the Mormon community,” said Chad Heywood, a Mormon who previously served as the executive director of the Arizona Republican Party.

And yet, Republicans running in areas with a significant LDS electorate see the environment as challenging. Several Mormons themselves are running for office, such as Dean Heller and Cresent Hardy in Nevada and Mitt Romney and Mia Love in Utah, and Republicans hope that will allow them to establish their own brands separate from Trump.

Dave Hansen, who is managing Love’s campaign, acknowledged they might have a more difficult time than usual pushing Mormons to the polls, but that having a well-known figure such as Romney on the ballot will be a boon to their efforts.

“Having Mitt Romney there has kind of taken away whatever negative there could be on turnout of people not voting because of Trump,” Hansen said. “I mean that was a godsend, to be honest with you, having him there.”

As was the case in 2016, some Mormons who are unhappy with the direction of the GOP will still pull the lever for the Republicans this fall when faced with the alternatives of liberal Democrats, long-shot independents or not voting at all. Heidi Wixom, a longtime Nevada GOP activist and Mormon, said that while she “can’t tolerate” Trump and has tried to “ignore” what’s happening in Washington, she will still most likely vote Republican again this fall.

But if candidates are looking for the additional assistance she’s provided before, they’ll have to go elsewhere.

“My heart just isn’t in it right now as it has been in the past,” Wixom said.

Adam Wollner: 202-383-6020, @AdamWollner

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