Mormon votes targeted in GOP presidential campaign

When Mormons fled Mexico a century ago to escape the country’s revolutionary guns, Dewaine Brown’s mother was among the children returning to the United States with their families.

Another child, the father of GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney, also joined the exodus as members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints abandoned their colonies.

“They left everything behind. All their homes were burned” by revolutionaries after the 1912 evacuation, Brown said. “Church authorities told them to go anywhere in the U.S. to get started again.”

That shared past and common religion are what drew Brown to back Romney for president, both four years ago in Nevada and again in 2012.

“I’ve never shaken hands with him, but I know the history and the family,” said Brown, 81, of Las Vegas. “He’s a problem-solver. I read Mitt Romney was born with a silver spoon in his mouth, but he has served others.”

In the face of such deep devotion, Rep. Ron Paul of Texas is trying to chip away at Romney’s Mormon support in the Silver State. The Mormon bloc accounted for one-quarter of Nevada’s GOP caucus-goers in 2008, according to exit polls, and could be a decisive factor in the Feb. 4 GOP presidential caucus in two weeks.

In 2008, about nine out of 10 members of the LDS church backed Romney in the Nevada GOP caucuses. Romney won 51 percent of the vote compared with 14 percent for Paul and 13 percent for Sen. John McCain, the eventual GOP nominee. The total turnout was 44,000 Republicans.

“We just need to get everybody to come out for Mitt again and he can win,” Brown said.

Brown was among about four dozen supporters who showed up last Monday at Romney’s Las Vegas campaign headquarters to watch a presidential debate and train for the GOP caucuses.

Fellow Mormons Makeli Scholer and his mother, Keahi Scholer, also were in the group.

Makeli Scholer said he backed Romney during his first presidential run because he was LDS. But now he sees the former Massachusetts governor as the best candidate to turn around the economy, thanks to his experience as a venture capitalist and running the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics.

“My initial reason for looking at him was my faith, but the more I looked at him the more I liked him,” he said. “I’m a huge fan. He’s kind of Mr. Fix-it. And he has leadership skills this country needs.”

The Scholers are such big Romney boosters that they once hosted a “meet and greet” event in their home with several of Romney’s five sons. People asked the Romneys questions about policy, and the sons used personal stories to win over supporters, Keahi Scholer said.

One son said he once asked his father for money to take out a girl on a date. Romney — whose own wealthy father, a former Michigan governor, made him do lawn work — handed over $10.

“He said, ‘My father is frugal and he’ll never waste your money,’ ” Keahi Scholer recalled of the lesson in fiscal responsibility. “I think Mitt Romney is somebody you can trust. He’s a good man.”

Paul’s campaign has been repeatedly calling the Scholer household — and those of other Mormons who make up 7 percent to 8 percent of the Nevada population — to try to change their minds.

“They’ve been very aggressive,” Keahi Scholer said.

LIBERTARIAN LEANINGS

While Romney’s campaign uses the personal touch, Paul’s operation is wooing Mormons with policy. It plays up his strict adherence to the Constitution, which Mormons view as a divinely inspired document, and promises to shrink the U.S. government and budget by $1 trillion his first year.

To cut defense spending, for example, Paul wants to pull U.S. military forces out of Iraq, Afghanistan and other war zones as he carries out a non­interventionist foreign policy.

Michael Cox, a sixth-generation Mormon who caucused for Romney in 2008, said Paul has won him over because of those strict fiscal stances as the U.S. debt hits a record $15 trillion.

“The day of reckoning is going to come unless this reckless spending stops,” said Cox, 30. “It’s going to destroy our country, and probably in our generation, unless something is done.”

Cox said he doesn’t agree 100 percent with Paul, but believes he would shake things up more than Romney, whom he sees as an establishment GOP figure tailor-made for Washington.

For now, the rest of Cox’s family is leaning toward Romney as the safer choice.

“My father says he agrees with two-thirds of what Ron Paul says, but the one-third concerns him enough that he doesn’t know who he’s going to vote for,” Cox said, adding his father lives in Utah.

Paul’s libertarian ideals attract LDS supporters, but require a leap of faith.

For example, he wants government out of Americans’ lives as much as possible, going so far as to propose legalizing drugs, including marijuana, cocaine and heroin. He argues it’s a matter of personal freedom and liberty. Yet it’s a position that seems at odds with Mormon strictures. They are directed to not take illegal drugs, drink alcohol, smoke or even drink coffee or tea .

Jorja Leavitt, who switched allegiance from Romney to Paul, said she has no problem with legalizing drugs because “it’s not the government’s job to tell us what we should and shouldn’t do.”

“Mormons strongly believe in people making choices,” she said. “No one can tell us what we can and cannot do with our bodies. If we legalize drugs, it doesn’t mean more people will take them.”

Leavitt said she may vote for a third party candidate if Paul doesn’t win the nomination.

“Ultimately, what I like about Paul is he wants to protect my liberty,” she said. “I feel like Ron Paul embodies what Republicans are supposed to be.”

David IsBell, a Paul supporter and former Clark County GOP political director, said his religion prohibits him and others from openly talking politics at their LDS churches.

“But I’m able to have those conversations” with fellow Mormons in other settings to win Paul converts, IsBell said.

“Some people thought Ron Paul was a flash in the pan, but people say you can trust what he says and he shares our values. There’s a lot of closeted people who support Ron Paul.”

CHURCH MEMBERS UNEASY

Many of Paul’s ideas resonate in the LDS community. For instance, Mormon prophets have long warned against excessive debt. Some Romney supporters said they hoped Paul would get a Cabinet post if Romney wins the White House, including Ron Futrell, a Mormon and former Las Vegas TV sportscaster.

Futrell said there’s both enthusiasm and concern among Mormons about the possibility of Romney becoming America’s first president from the LDS church, whose members account for 2 percent of the U.S. population. They compare it to John Kennedy becoming the first Catholic president 50 years ago.

“There’s certainly excitement that we’ve got a shot at the presidency, but there’s a lot of trepidation that the church will become a target,” Futrell said. “There’s trepidation that lies will be spread, things will be said about the LDS church in this political campaign that will have to be defended.”

Many Americans have heard of Brigham Young, the so-called “Mormon Moses,” who as president of the LDS church in the 1800s led his people West to found colonies and Salt Lake City. Some also know Young was a polygamist who had many wives, a practice now outlawed by the church.

It’s the polygamist past that sticks in many people’s minds.

In fact, Mitt Romney’s great grandparents were among polygamists who moved to Mexico in the late 1800s to build Mormon colonies and escape a U.S. crackdown on the practice. His father, George, was born in Mexico to American parents, who were modern-day monogamists, however.

George Romney fled Mexico with his parents in 1912, eventually ending up in Utah after bouncing around several states in the West, living a subsistence farm life. As an adult, George Romney moved east, rose in the auto industry and was elected governor of Michigan.

He ran for president in 1968, but withdrew from the race Richard Nixon won.

Now the son hopes to complete the Romney road to the White House — if he can win the GOP nomination and then defeat President Barack Obama, the first African-American U.S. president.

ATTACKS EXPECTED

In a recent survey of Mormons nation­wide by the Pew Research Center, a majority said America is ready for an LDS president, while one-third said no. More than two-thirds said most Americans don’t view the Mormon religion as “mainstream,” however, and half have encountered discrimination.

Quin Monson, a political science professor at Brigham Young University, said most attacks on the Mormon religion during the GOP primary season have come from the conservative right. In particular, evangelicals in the South have questioned the beliefs of the LDS church.

But during the general election, Monson said, the church is likely to get the most heat from the political left as Democrats attack the church’s past discrimination against blacks, its position against abortion and gay marriage, and the more traditional roles often assigned to women.

“Race gets brought up not to win more African-Americans — who aren’t going to vote any more Democratic than they already do — but as a signal to other voters who don’t want a Republican who’s racist,” Monson said. “Race targets white suburban women, moderate Republicans and independents.”

Monson, who is Mormon, said Romney’s religion was an issue during his first presidential run in 2008, but he expects questions to intensify dramatically if he wins the GOP nomination.

“It will be very mean-spirited, nasty and a little strange at times,” Monson predicted.

Dewaine Brown, the 81-year-old Romney supporter, said he and his religious brothers and sisters are prepared for the worst after experiencing a history of persecution.

“There’s going to be people who will never vote for Mitt because he’s Mormon,” Brown said. “That’s OK. We don’t want to push ourselves on people.”

As for the Paul push in the Mormon community, Brown sees support in the LDS church for some of the things Paul says about the Constitution and reducing the size of the federal government.

“I just don’t know about his managerial ability,” Brown said of Paul. “And I don’t think he could beat Obama. And that’s important for a lot of people.”

Contact Laura Myers at lmyers@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2919. Follow @lmyerslvrj on Twitter.

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