Former Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney waves after speaking about the tech sector during an industry conference dubbed Silicon Slopes on Jan. 19, 2018, in Salt Lake City. The 70-year-old announced that he is running for the Utah Senate seat being vacated by Republican Orrin Hatch on Feb. 16, 2018. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

Will Mitt Romney’s senate bid turn (more) Mormons away from Trump?

WASHINGTON (RNS) — When Mitt Romney announced his campaign to become Utah’s next U.S. senator, he drew a stark contrast between the accomplishments of the state he wants to represent and those of lawmakers in the nation's capital.

In a slick 2-minute video released Friday (Feb. 16), the former Massachusetts governor and onetime GOP presidential candidate pointed to how the state exports more than it imports, balances its budgets, and embraces immigrants — things, he said, national politicians fail to do.

“On Utah’s Capitol Hill, people treat each other with respect,” Romney, already an overwhelming favorite, declared in a possible swipe at President Trump’s insult-ridden style of politics. “Utah is a better model for Washington than Washington is for Utah.”

But there was one difference he didn’t mention: the prominence of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Utah, where 55 percent of the population claims the faith — including Romney.

That, experts say, likely isn’t an accident, nor does it make him any less Mormon. If anything, it’s one of the most Mormon things he could have done.

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Romney's pitch reflects a Mormon tradition of polite politics and reservedness about one's faith that differs from other American religious conservatives, in particular evangelicals.

And his campaign is shaping up to be a battle for the soul of Republican Mormons in Utah and beyond, potentially pitting the former governor against Trump and his supporters. But political observers say Romney is tapping into a long tradition of Republican Mormons in the Beehive State to offer an alternative to Trump’s new breed of politics.

Much has been written about how Mormons — the most reliably Republican major religious group in the United States — have been unusually slow to warm to Trump compared to other Republican presidents. Although a recent Gallup poll showed that more than 60 percent of the group approves of the president, experts argue that should be much higher, and Trump only secured 45.1 percent of the vote in the state during the 2016 general election — enough to win, but nowhere near the 72.8 percent Romney secured there when he ran in 2012. This resistance has endured: LDS church officials remain vocally supportive of immigrants in ways that sometimes contrast to Trump, and a 2017 PRRI survey found Republicans who identify as “Never Trump” are significantly more likely than other subgroups to be Mormon.

Romney, for his part, has been openly critical of Trump since the early days of the 2016 election, telling attendees at a Hinckley Institute of Politics forum during the campaign that Trump “has neither the temperament nor the judgment to be president” and that his policies would lead to a recession and “make America and the world less safe.” He has continued to blast the president since his election, demanding in 2017 he apologize for asserting that “both sides” were to blame for the racist violence in Charlottesville, Va.

Former Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney waves after speaking about the tech sector during an industry conference in Salt Lake City on Jan. 19, 2018. Romney announced his Senate candidacy on Feb. 16, 2018. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

In Mormon circles, he’s in good company. The LDS church itself took the rare step of issuing a statement in December 2015 implicitly condemning Trump’s proposal to ban Muslims from entering the country. More recently, Mormon Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., delivered a speech from the Senate floor in January condemning Trump’s attacks on the press, concluding by invoking “Oh Say, What is Truth” — an old Mormon hymn.

Taken together, a perception has emerged that while Mormons continue to skew conservative, many remain uncomfortable with Trump — something Romney could capitalize on.

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“Mormons have a reputation, and I think mostly rightly, for being generally polite and clean-cut and straight-laced — and none of these things are things Donald Trump embodies,” said Jessica Preece, associate professor of political science at Utah’s Brigham Young University. “There is a style issue that is distasteful to Mormons who are socially conservative and appreciate more traditional ways of doing politics.”

But Utah political observers say they don’t expect Romney, who served for years in Mormon lay positions such as bishop and stake president, to make a big show of his faith on the campaign trail — a posture that is, ironically, deeply Mormon.

Boyd Matheson. Photo courtesy of Sutherland Institute


 This image is available for web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

Boyd Matheson, who recently ended his tenure as president of the Sutherland Institute, a Utah-based conservative think tank, said Republican voters in the state who belong to the LDS church prefer candidates who show their Mormonism through their actions, not their words.

“People want to know your principles and your values, but … if you’re perceived as leveraging your position in the church or affiliation with the church, that is a real turnoff,” said Matheson, who now works as an opinion editor at the LDS-owned Deseret News. “If you have to declare it, you’re not it — that’s sort of how it plays here. It’s much more of a ‘by their fruits ye shall know them’ kind of state.”

Some have highlighted the tradition’s history as a minority faith to explain this accommodating spirit.

But Kathleen Flake, professor of Mormon studies at the University of Virginia, explained the Mormon tendency to be “emphatically neutral” about faith grew out of a controversy in the early 1900s over an earlier Mormon senator from Utah, Reed Smoot.

Reed Smoot served as a U.S. Senator from Utah from 1903 until 1933. Photo courtesy of Library of Congress


 This image is available for web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

When Smoot, who was also an apostle in the LDS church, was elected, he was beset with accusations such as being too closely tied to the church or being a polygamist — a practice the church formally abandoned years before. Lawmakers convened a series of congressional hearings to determine his ability to serve and called a number of witnesses, including then-LDS President Joseph F. Smith.

“They worked out a particular stance with the federal government in the early 20th century and they’re sticking to it,” Kathleen Flake said. “It’s basically, ‘You obey the law, you act for the common good, and you show tolerance to everybody else — you don’t get in the way of others.’”

The vote to unseat Smoot ultimately failed, and he went on to serve in the Senate from 1903 to 1933 and become influential in the Republican Party. But the UVA professor said the process cemented a certain posture for Mormons when it comes to politics — one that Romney is likely to emulate in ways that set him apart from the president.

“(Many) Mormons finally found a Republican they don’t like — and that’s Trump,” Flake, who wrote a book on Smoot, said.

Preece echoed the notion that Romney’s embrace of this traditional stance is suddenly radical in 2018, as it offers a direct contrast to Trump.

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“That’s where the Mitt Romney race is really interesting for Utah: If he holds the line on the traditional Republican — sort of business Republican — perspective, that gives an alternate leader to follow (for Republicans),” she said. “Because Mitt Romney is widely trusted — not exclusively, but is widely seen as an admirable person — the stances that he takes are likely to deeply shape Republicans in Utah.”

Some Utah insiders wonder if Romney’s end goal — assuming Republicans manage to keep control of the Senate this year — is to become majority leader, allowing him the posture of a direct alternative to Trump from the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue.

Still, experts say Romney will likely keep the race Utah-focused, concentrating on local issues such as public lands, education, and air quality. Romney is already facing blowback from fellow members of the GOP for this stance on Trump: Utah Republican Chairman Rob Anderson blasted Romney in a Salt Lake Tribune interview on Wednesday ahead of his announcement, saying, “he has never been a Trump supporter.” (He later walked back his remarks.)

What’s more, Jason Perry, director of the Hinckley Institute of Politics, said that Utah is not exclusively Mormon, and Romney likely wants to court non-LDS members as well.

Even so, he acknowledged appeals to local issues often overlap with Mormon interests.

“Utah does see itself as being a major international player — not just from the business perspective, but because the LDS church sends people all around the world on missions,” he said.

Comments

  1. seriously, the man thinks he is going to be god on another planet.

  2. Say what you will…but if more senators had mustaches like Reed Smoot and Teddy Roosevelt..the Senate would be 33% more awesomer….

    It’s weird…but given where we are….Romney seems quasi-rational.

  3. Give me a break. At best he will pull a “Jeff Flake” and make snide comments about Trump in public all the while voting for his agenda. Republicans don’t really have the backbone to go against the agenda they helped create over the years.

  4. If any current Republicans were like Teddy Roosevelt, they would be far more respectable, ethical and admirable.

  5. And they’d BY GAWD ride mosses into lakes (although sadly that awesome photo is fake).

  6. Must be disappointing to discover that you don’t have the monopoly on daft ideas!

  7. They play in the mud and tar and look to blame others when the grime reaches their eyeballs.

  8. Yes and no. The narrative here that Rmoney represents decent Rethuglicans and Trump does not obscures these facts:

    1. Despite the independent candidacy of Ewan McMullin, Trump won Utah’s electoral votes handily.
    2. Romney made racist statements in 2012: “The 47%” and “No one asked for my birth certificate” to name 2. Since Nixon no Republican has ever won without appealing to racism.
    3. Mia Love, Utah’s Haiitan-American Mormon 4th CD Representative, was noted to be seen playing poker with high rollers at Sheldon Adelson’s recent shindig for pro-Trump donors.
    4. Sure, compared to Trump, Romney’s not so bad, but 2012 Romney was still a prick given his sense of entitlement exhibited, animal abuse, hazing in college, and “Corporations are people, my friend.”
    5. Utahans voted for Romney in 2012 like Black North Carolinians and Indianans, as “one of us.” Sure they will again for Senate. But it’s meaningless unless Romney challenges Trump in the 2020 primaries.

  9. TR and Taft were liberals – probably more liberal than any other Presidents except LBJ and FDR.

  10. To some degree. However, TR was an imperialist and not a particular friend to organized labor. But more liberal than the Gilded Age laissez-faire type of his day.

  11. I’ve had many daft ideas – but I dumped the one about God when I was still a child.

  12. I will when someone gives me a valid reason to do so – but no-one does.

  13. 1 Corinthians 1:18 – English Standard Version

    For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.

  14. Now provide a valid reason why quoting something someone translated from something that was multiply copied after being written by someone has any bearing on whether or not there is a deity.

  15. Then your point was that you have no valid reason for believing in a deity.

  16.  AND THE INFAMOUS ANGELIC/SATANIC CONS CONTINUE TO WREAK STUPIDITY UPON THE WORLD (and why Washington DC is so messed up)

    Joe Smith had his Moroni and Satan/Perdition/Lucifer. (As does M. Romney)

    “Latter-day Saints like M. Romney also believe that Michael the Archangel was Adam (the first man) when he was mortal, and Gabriel lived on the earth as Noah.”

    Jehovah Witnesses have their Jesus /Michael the archangel, the first angelic being created by God and of course Satan and his demons.

    Mohammed had his Gabriel (this “tinkerbell” got around) and of course the jinn.

    Jesus and his family had/has Michael, Gabriel, and Satan, the latter being a modern day demon of the demented. (As do BO and his family)(As do Biden and Ryan)

    The Abraham-Moses myths had their Angel of Death and other “no-namers” to do their dirty work or other assorted duties.

    And Trump? He just might be the devil incarnate!! LOL

    Contemporary biblical and religious scholars have relegated these “pretty wingie/ugly/horn-blowing thingies” to the myth pile. We should do the same to include deleting all references to them in our religious operating manuals. Doing this will eliminate the prophet/profit/prophecy status of these founders and put them where they belong as simple humans just like the rest of us.

  17. While I voted for Obama over Mitt in 2012, I am glad to see Mitt running to replace that jerk Orrin Hartch.

  18. Romney’s proved he’s ineffectual to U.S. politics to the American people!

  19. Although if he supported the Trump agenda it would be a powerful statement, but Romney doesn’t have it in him. He’s to much a narcissist.

  20. If he were a narcissist, he’d fit right in with Cheeto’s crowd.
    What you meant to say was ‘he’s too decent to support Cheeto’s agenda’.

  21. Your atrocious spelling makes me suspect you’re sitting in a hovel somewhere in Moscow spewing out garbage for a few rubles a week.

  22. Well, that didn’t take long. In the past week, Jabba the Trump endorse mittens for Senator. Here is Mittens’s response on Twitter.

    “Thank you Mr. President for the support. I hope that over the course of the campaign I also earn the support and endorsement of the people of Utah.”

  23. Well Jeffrey you’re untitled to your opinion. Romney is part of the deep-state swamp and a confederate of the traitor John McCain!

  24. He accepted Trump’s endorsement. Romney is the same weasel he was in 2008 when he claimed people worked for a living paid too little in taxes.

  25. Deep state swamp is a nonsense term to attack anyone with a modicum of experience and competence. Unlike the shallow end mind of our president and flunkies.

    The swamp wasn’t drained. Trump brought his own alligators!

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