Population growth in the West has created unprecedented opportunities for Mormon candidates to run for Congress in 2012.
Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are seeking new and open seats in Arizona, Nevada and Utah — and in many cases, they are running against each other.
It’s a new phenomenon for a religion that adamantly tries to stay out of the national political spotlight. The plethora of Mormon Congressional candidates comes as two Latter-day Saints are running for the GOP presidential nomination and one of them, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, is the frontrunner.
“You have two presidential candidates out there — maybe that’s inspiring,” said Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), a Mormon. “There’s just more Mormons out there. We’re growing in numbers.”
The dynamic is a product of significant population growth in states with high Mormon concentrations. Arizona, Nevada and Utah each picked up a House seat following reapportionment, and LDS candidates — almost all of whom are Republicans — are now running for at least one seat in each of those states.
Utah’s new Congressional map creates two good opportunities for the GOP hopefuls: a new seat and a challenge to Rep. Jim Matheson (D) if he seeks re-election. Six Mormon candidates, all Republicans, are seeking or considering a bid for either seat.
In Nevada, appointed Sen. Dean Heller (R), a Mormon, is seeking a full term. State Sen. John Lee (D), a Mormon and underdog in the 4th district Democratic primary, is seeking the state’s new House seat.
In Arizona, Republicans have three top-tier Mormon challengers running for the House — at least two of whom might seek the same seat once the new Congressional map is completed. Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) and the other Republican running for retiring Sen. Jon Kyl’s (R-Ariz.) seat are members of the LDS church, too.
“In my race, I have another LDS opponent in the primary,” Flake said. “We’re encouraged to get involved in civics and in our community, so we’re usually disproportionately represented in some Legislatures and in the U.S. Senate or elsewhere.”
When former Rep. Matt Salmon (R) was elected in 1994, he was the first active member of the LDS church elected to Congress from Arizona. After a decade-long hiatus from Congress, Salmon is running again against at least two other Mormons.
“Not in any Congressional races have I ever run against somebody in my church,” Salmon said in a phone interview. “In a way, I think I kind of opened the door for that. I was the very first person elected from the state who was a practicing member of my religion.”
The large number of Mormon candidates means the number of LDS church members in Congress might be on the upswing again after a decade-long decline.
Fourteen voting Members of Congress are Mormon: six Senators and eight House Members, including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), the highest-ranking Congressional Mormon. That’s down from 17 Mormon Members in the 106th Congress.
“When I came here, we had more LDS members than we do now,” said Rep. Buck McKeon (R-Calif.), who was first elected almost 20 years ago. “We had four LDS members from California, now we have two.”
Despite the potential to grow their ranks this cycle, Mormon candidates and Members noted the continued lack of political organization in their religious community.
The LDS church prides itself on teaching its members to be involved citizens, but the church won’t touch politics or activity that is perceived as overtly political, according to Chuck Warren, a Republican consultant who has worked with several LDS candidates.
“There’s no organized system,” Warren said. “There’s nobody out there recruiting LDS members to run. And it’s frustrating at times.”
In many ways, Romney broke the political organizational barrier for Mormon candidates. Warren said Romney was the first person who could cultivate and organize LDS church members as donors. But that doesn’t necessarily translate to the Congressional level. No one interviewed for this story — neither a Member, candidate nor operative — could name even an informal Mormon political organization or leader. “If you hear of one, let me know. I’d like to talk to them,” McKeon quipped.
Former Rep. Chris Cannon (R-Utah) started a political action committee aimed at helping Mormon candidates in 2007, but the Federal Election Commission removed the committee’s obligation to file fundraising reports earlier this year based on its zero balance.
There is still informal communication between the politically active within the community. For example, Chaffetz talked to Rob Cornilles, the Republican nominee in an upcoming Oregon special election, about running. But the Congressman chalked up that connection to their mutual alma mater, Brigham Young University.
“But we’re sort of funny that way. We want our people to be active and contributing to society on many fronts, but it’s frowned on to trade on your Mormon credentials,” said Gary Lawrence, a California GOP pollster and a Mormon. “If someone is too blatant in saying, ‘Vote for me, I’m a fellow Mormon,’ it will backfire on them.”
McKeon will fundraise for Salmon’s comeback bid. Salmon said Rep. Wally Herger (R-Calif.), another member of the LDS church, also helped his campaign.
Several Republican consultants privately praised their Mormon candidates. Geography typically dictates an LDS member’s church, which means any candidate starts off with an instant local base.
“The way they’ve constructed their places of worship gives them significantly more political power than anyone else has,” one GOP consultant said.
Mormon youths typically embark on mission trips around the world, such as the journey Romney took to France to knock on doors and seek converts. GOP consultants said they can’t imagine better training for meeting disenchanted voters on the campaign trail.
“The LDS [Church] places a premium on education,” Salmon said. “It places a premium on hard work ethic and self-sufficiency. It places a premium on community service and being patriotic. I think all those things translate very well into running for office.”