- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 17, 2003

Idaho and Wyoming put up a fight, but in the battle for bragging rights as the nation’s most conservative state, nobody can touch Utah.

Joe Cannon, chairman of the Utah Republican Party, says he received the official confirmation shortly after the November midterm election.

“I got a call from the Idaho [Republican Party] chair,” Mr. Cannon said. “He was lamenting about how Utah had passed up Idaho as the most Republican state.”

Indeed, while Idaho was adding Democrats to the state Legislature and Wyoming was ushering in a Democratic governor, Utah voters were bolstering their allegiance to the Republican Party by jettisoning two Democratic state senators and four representatives.

The “State That Bill Clinton Never Visited” now has a Republican governor, two Republican U.S. senators, and two out of three U.S. representatives. On the state level, Republicans control both houses of the Legislature with 56 out of 75 represent- atives and 22 out of 29 senators.

Standing in the way of Utah’s quest to become a completely Republican state is two-term Democratic Rep. Jim Matheson, the likeable, telegenic son of a popular former governor. But he almost didn’t make it: Utah Republicans ran a virtual unknown, John Swallow, against Mr. Matheson in November and came within 1,600 votes of beating him.

Those seeking an explanation for Utah’s strong ties to the Republican Party don’t have to look far. Ask Utahns why, and they’ll point out that the state is smack-dab in the middle of the Rocky Mountain West, the most conservative region in the country.

And then they’ll reluctantly mention the influence of “the church,” the one that settled Utah 150 years ago and accounts for about 70 percent of the state’s 2.3 million residents. Utahns bristle at having their every move attributed to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, better known as the Mormons, but in this case, the link is hard to escape.

There are 5.3 million Mormons in the United States, and outside of Utah, many are also concentrated in Idaho. Mormons account for a third of Idaho’s 1.3 million residents. They also began colonizing northern Arizona in 1870 and maintain a strong presence there.

But the church’s real base of power is in Utah.

The church takes no stand on political-party membership, but it does hold strongly conservative positions on a host of hot-button social issues, notably abortion and homosexuality. Reconciling the liberal platform of the Democratic Party with the church’s teachings has proven a feat of political gymnastics beyond the ability of many practicing Mormons.

“People say, ‘I don’t know how you can possibly be a Democrat,’ ” said Utah House Minority Leader Brent Goodfellow, a member of the LDS Church. “It’s always a good discussion, but you’re not going to convince some of these conservative Republicans to be Democrats.”

On the other hand, Meg Holbrook, chairman of the Utah Democratic Party, points out that most Democrats in Utah are also Mormon. More than 90 percent of the state’s Democratic candidates last year were Mormon, including Mr. Matheson, she said.

“The perception is that you can’t be good LDS members and good Democrats, but most Democrats here are also LDS,” she said.

The Udalls

Indeed, the nation’s most famous Western political family has its roots in both the Democratic Party and LDS Church. The Udalls, known as “the Kennedys of the West,” were descended from prominent church leaders, tracing their roots to the early Mormon pioneers who crossed the plains to escape religious persecution.

The family’s most-famous members, Stewart and Morris, were Democratic Party leaders during the 1960s and 1970s. Stewart was elected to Congress for four terms before becoming Interior secretary under President John F. Kennedy.

His younger brother Morris — known as Mo — succeeded Stewart as a representative from Arizona’s 2nd District in 1961 and served until 1991. He gained national fame when he ran for the 1976 Democratic presidential nomination, losing to the man who ultimately became president — Jimmy Carter.

Scratch the surface of the Udall family history, however, and the tension between their faith and their politics becomes palpable. Although the Udalls were raised Mormon — their father, Levi, was the stake president in St. Johns, Ariz., near the New Mexico border — the church played almost no role in their adult lives.

“If you asked Mo his religion, he’d say Mormon,” said Udall biographer James W. Johnson. “But he didn’t practice at all. Mormons don’t drink or smoke, but he chomped on a big old cigar, although he never lit it, and he drank whenever necessary.”

Udall scholars offer several explanations, one of which is that Mo’s parents never insisted that the children follow their religion. “Their parents didn’t push them to go to church, and his mother taught Sunday school every week,” biographer Donald W. Carson said.

Mr. Johnson linked Stewart and Mo’s distancing from the church in part to their strong commitment to civil rights. Both men were ahead of their time in pushing for equal rights for blacks, but the church banned blacks from the Mormon priesthood until 1978.

The difficulty in maintaining a Democratic and Mormon identity can be seen with the next generation of Udalls. Three serve in Congress, but only one, Rep. Tom Udall of New Mexico, identifies himself as both Mormon and Democratic.

His cousin, Rep. Mark Udall of Colorado, serves as a Democrat but doesn’t consider himself to be a Mormon. Another cousin, Sen. Gordon H. Smith of Oregon, practices the Mormon faith but has switched to the Republican Party.

The split has come at a price. Mr. Johnson, who wrote “Mo: The Life and Times of Morris K. Udall” (University of Arizona Press: 2001) with Mr. Carson, said Stewart and Mo have been virtually ignored by Mormon historians, a factor the author attributes in part to their politics.

“The Udalls aren’t that well-recognized in their hometown, St. Johns. It’s a small town [of 3,800 people], and here they’ve had these two prominent national figures come from there,” Mr. Johnson said. “You’d think there would be some notice of them, but they went off on their liberal side, and I don’t think conservative Mormons want to remember that.”

Although Stewart is still alive, Mo died in 1998 after a battle with Parkinson’s disease.

Not always an oxymoron

When the Udall brothers were young, however, being a Mormon and a Democrat wasn’t such a contradiction. At the turn of the century, church members were split about 50-50 between the Republicans and Democrats, said Kent Larsen, the editor of the Mormon News, an independent online news service that covers church issues.

Many of the church’s followers were attracted by the Democrats’ appeal to labor and the common man. “When the Democratic Party was the farmer party, they owned Utah,” Mr. Cannon said. “They had a Democratic Legislature, a Democratic Senate, and most of the county commissioners. And this is in the 1970s, which is not that long ago.”

For two brief years from 1975 until 1977, Utah had a Democratic governor, Scott Matheson, and a Democratic Legislature. But as the national party moved to the left, particularly on social issues, Utah Democrats saw their majority slip away.

“The left wing of the Democratic Party took over in 1968 and consolidated their power in 1972,” Mr. Cannon said. “After that, you saw the gradual move by Mormons but also by evangelical Christians, conservative Catholics and Orthodox Jews toward the Republican Party. And I think that explains Utah more than LDS theology.”

As the Democratic Party was moving left, the church was moving right. At one time, pacifism outweighed social issues on the church’s priority list. Until the Vietnam War, the church had issued statements condemning the nation’s involvement in every military conflict, including World War II.

The church has influenced Utah politics, but Utah has also influenced the church. “The Republican bent has a lot to do with where the church was and where the majority of church members were,” Mr. Larsen said.

“It has to do with a few issues: abortion, homosexuality,” he said. “Other issues the church has emphasized in the past, like being against war, are not emphasized now, and I think that’s a reflection of the church being mainly Republican.”

Utah Democrats argue that their positions on the issues are actually closer in spirit to the doctrines of the LDS church than those of Republicans. For example, the church emphasizes good stewardship of the land and caring for the needy, which meshes with the Democratic Party’s advocacy of social spending, Mr. Goodfellow said.

“The Mormon church takes care of the poor, the elderly, the sick and the needy, and that’s what Democrats stand for. That’s what we’re all about,” he said. “I personally think it isn’t as hard to be a Democrat and a Mormon as it is to be a Republican.”

Utah Democrats also take a more conservative stand on abortion than their national counterparts. While the national party is strongly pro-choice, most elected Democrats in Utah support abortion only in the cases of rape, incest and when the life of the mother is threatened, Mr. Goodfellow said.

That is the same position taken by the church, but try telling that to the voters. “We’re not out there calling for legalized abortion. Our senators are much more moderate than the national party,” said Mike Dmitrich, the state Senate minority leader.

“But in rural Utah, we get bombed. They just vote the straight one-party ticket,” he said. “[Republicans] use the liberal views of the national party to brand us, and we’re not that way at all.”

Be that as it may, many Utahns remain convinced that a vote for their Democratic legislator is a vote for such liberal Democrats as Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York. “Let’s face it, there are Democratic issues that are fundamentally opposed to LDS doctrine. The church is against abortion,” Mr. Cannon said.

“The Democratic Party in the state can say it’s pro-life, but the national party is pro-choice,” he said. “That’s a point that’s absolutely inconsistent with Mormon teaching.”

A Democrat in Utah’s future?

Even in their blackest hour, Utah Democrats see cause for optimism. For one, things could hardly get any worse. For another, most Mormons now live outside of Utah, which could loosen the church’s conservative stance.

“I think things will change again, now that the majority are outside Utah. I think where they live will influence their politics,” Mr. Larsen said. “The LDS church in England tends to be more liberal than conservative, less Tory than Labor.”

Utahns may also tire of their reputation as residents of a one-party state. “I know companies calling to relocate to Utah, and they have concerns about coming here,” Ms. Holbrook said. “They’ll say ‘It’s beautiful, but I don’t know if I could live in such a conservative state.’ ”

A big reason for last November’s Republican blow-out was the state’s Republican-friendly redistricting plan. “The Wall Street Journal called it the worst gerrymander in the country,” Ms. Holbrook said. “And Dick Cheney came out here twice.”

In the meantime, there’s always denial. “I still don’t think that we’re the most Republican state,” protested Ms. Holbrook. “I think it’s Wyoming.”

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