When the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints showed its political might this fall by intervening in the California vote on Proposition 8, an initiative banning gay marriage, Mormons all over the country poured at least $20 million and countless hours of volunteer work into the successful effort.
The church also showed its political limitations in the failed Republican Party candidacy of Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, a practicing Mormon whose faith emerged as a major issue in the campaign.
The three Rocky Mountain states with the highest percentage of Mormons — Utah, Idaho and Wyoming — showed the strongest regional opposition to Barack Obama and support for John McCain. Wyoming led the nation in this regard, giving only 33 percent of the vote to Obama.
At least one of nine voters in Wyoming is Mormon. But does that mean that Wyoming has a “Mormon vote” in the same way that south Florida has a Jewish vote or South Carolina has an evangelical Christian vote?
Despite their significant numbers in the state, Mormons, whose history is one of flight from persecution and prosecution, have sometimes been reluctant to push themselves forward too boldly on public issues.
The current proposal to endow a professorship in Mormon studies at the University of Wyoming is a good example. Some Mormons solidly back the idea while others are nervous about opening their faith to scholarly investigation at the state’s only university.
At the same time, members of the faith are by no means monolithic in their politics, as the careers of certain high-profile Mormon Democrats clearly demonstrate. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada is a good example on the national level. In Wyoming, teachers’ union and civil rights lawyer Pat Hacker of Cheyenne is a Democrat, a former state legislator — and a Mormon.
One thing is clear from interviews with state politicians and political analysts: if there is a “Mormon vote” in Wyoming, it is not one specifically targeted and cultivated by candidates and campaigns.
And while Mormons in Utah and Idaho may act one way politically, it does mean that Wyoming Mormons follow suit. No Wyoming Mormons, for example, figured prominently among contributors to the California Prop. 8 campaign.
At least in recent decades, Wyoming Mormons have voted consistently with the Republican Party, which for some years now has mirrored LDS positions against abortion and gay marriage.
In Wyoming’s 2008 Congressional election, for example, Mormon voters backed Republican Cynthia Lummis, an abortion opponent who in her college years considered joining the Mormon church, over Democrat Gary Trauner.
It is clear that Lummis did much better in Mormon majority towns like Afton and Lovell than she did statewide. Several of Lummis’ key staffers previously worked for Romney, who won the Wyoming Republican caucus in last January. Lummis said in October that she welcomed their support and expertise.
But Lummis also did extremely well in mostly non-Mormon districts that rely heavily on the energy industry or on ranching — Campbell County and Niobrara County, for example.
Tucker Fagan, who is not Mormon, managed Lummis’ campaign and was recently named her chief of staff. Short of polling people directly on how they voted and what their religion is, Fagan said, it’s hard to get a definite answer on whether there’s a Mormon vote.
Lummis’ support, even in heavily Mormon districts in Wyoming, Fagan said, “is probably a mix of ag, guns, and religion.”
Voters in Mormon strongholds in the Star Valley and Big Horn Basin gave Lummis much higher percentages than her statewide victory margin of 51 percent. In precincts in Afton and Osmond, two predominantly communities in Lincoln County’s Star Valley, Lummis won more than 70 percent of the vote. In Lovell, another strongly Mormon town in northern Big Horn County, Lummis carried 69 percent.
Across the state, only Campbell County, where coal and energy interests dominate, and sparsely populated Niobara County, gave Lummis higher percentages than Lincoln and Big Horn Counties, the two places in the state with the highest percentage of Mormon voters. Campbell County went 65.8 percent for Lummis compared to Lincoln County at 60.9 percent and Big Horn Co. at 63.1. Niobara Co., with only 1304 voters backed Lummis by 69.01 percent.
While it cannot be said that Mormon voters won the election for Lummis, who defeated Trauner by 24,486 votes statewide, it is clear they were a major factor in her victory. Lincoln and Big Horn Counties alone gave Lummis a margin of 4,337 votes, more than enough to compensate for Trauner’s 3,992 vote margin in his home Teton County.
But Bruce Asay, of Cheyenne, a lawyer, is also spokesman for the Mormon stake presidents in Wyoming, cautioned against extrapolating results from heavily Mormon areas to a theoretical Mormon vote statewide. To do so, he said, would be “an overgeneralization and a fallacy.”
“I think it’s more correct to say she’s appealing to rural interests,” said Asay, who in 2004 ran unsuccessfully against incumbent Barabara Cubin in the state GOP primary.
Results from Wyoming’s 2006 U.S. Senate race, meanwhile, appear to show that people in heavily Mormon places still prefer a Republican they feel they know well to a Mormon Democrat they’re unfamiliar with.
Dale Groutage, of Lander, had little name recognition when he ran against the late Sen. Craig Thomas in 2006. Groutage is an active Mormon whose family on his father’s side has been in Wyoming for four generations and been in the church since the 1840s.
Thomas, running for a third term in the Senate, won almost 69 percent of the vote. Groutage won just under 30 percent.
Groutage made no secret of his faith during the campaign, but he didn’t trumpet it either.
Groutage said he would like to see more of a two-party system in Wyoming. Mormons as a rule vote Republican, he said. He wished more would vote the other way.
“I would like to see Mormons a little more open-minded,” he said. “I would.”
The Mormon makeup of the Wyoming Legislature reflects the Mormon makeup of the voting population statewide.
There are currently 10 Mormon legislators in Wyoming, five in the Senate and five in the House. As such, the fraction is exactly one-ninth of the 90 legislators total, the same fraction as the Mormons in the total state population.
Of those 10 legislators, one, Sen. Kathryn Sessions, of Cheyenne, is a Democrat. The rest are Republicans.
Sen. Drew Perkins, of Casper, cautioned against typecasting Mormons. He said there is no Mormon caucus in the Legislature. Perkins added that when he and Sen. Ray Peterson, of Cowley, who sits next to him in the Senate — both LDS, both Republican — “actually chuckle when we vote the same” because that seldom happens.
Perkins said legislators talk of a horseshoe of conservatism in Wyoming that stretches north from Uinta County in the southwest corner, through Lincoln County to Park, Bighorn, and Campbell counties across the northern tier, and then back down the east side of the state through extremely conservative, agricultural counties like Weston, Crook, and Niobrara. It’s called the Wallop factor, he said, for U.S. Sen. Malcolm Wallop who supposedly identified it. The pattern seems to hold pretty well, he said, with more Democratic Teton County the notable exception.
“So [Mormons] vote in that conservative bloc,” he said — but it is a conservative bloc, and not a Mormon one.
Occasionally, he said, Mormons will vote alike when a specific election stirs them one way or another.
Cubin’s vagueness on the Martin’s Cove land sale angered the LDS community
In 2002, Republican incumbent Rep. Barbara Cubin won her home county of Natrona by only a single vote. That year, Perkins said, many LDS voters were upset with Cubin for not making it clear if she was for or against a proposed sale to the Mormon Church of federal land at Martin’s Cove.
“She straddled the fence and not particularly well,” he said. “It kind of angered a lot of LDS people.”
Ironically, Sen. Thomas’s strong opposition to the land sale did not seem to affect his popularity in Mormon areas.
Sometimes Mormons themselves are split on an issue, said Rep. Elaine Harvey, a Republican from Lovell.
Harvey is LDS. She said political opinions in her Mormon congregation are as varied as in any other part of Wyoming — except on what she called family values issues. The Mormons in her ward believe clearly that marriage should be between a man and a woman only, and they oppose abortion, she said.
In Cheyenne, LDS legislators from around the state feel “camaraderie” and “a commonality,” she said. “It’s easy to know who you can stand by” at legislative functions “when you don’t drink,” she said.
On some issues — gambling, for example — the Mormon legislators generally agree.
On others, they don’t.
House bills 95 and 96 in 2007 aimed to pay for training and business management assistance for child-care providers, increase state subsidies for small children’s tuition, and increase providers’ pay.
Harvey worked on a task force that put the bills together, and led much of the push for them in a House committee and on the floor.
Her support for the bills is consistent with her LDS family values, she said.
“But regardless of your religion,” she said, “it’s important to deal with facts as they stand.” Two-thirds of children from birth to age eight are already in child care in Wyoming. Harvey said it’s in the state’s interest to see that child care is high quality.
Perkins, however, opposed the bill, as did Sen. Peterson of Cowley and a number of other LDS legislators at various stages of the bill’s progress — and of course many non-Mormon ones.
Opponents believed “the state has no business there, it’s a private business,” Harvey said. There was also “a very strong Christian coalition against that bill,” she added.
Eventually it passed, but many of its central provisions had been stripped from it. Funds for some training for providers remained.
Minneapolis political consultant Scott Cottington has worked on a number of Republican campaigns in Wyoming, including the 2008 U.S. Senate campaigns of Mike Enzi and John Barrasso.
He said he’s always thought of Wyoming’s Mormon vote primarily as a logistical question. That is, a lot of Wyomng’s Mormons live in places it’s difficult to reach with advertising.
Lummis Congressional chief of staff Tucker Fagan agreed.
He said to reach all Wyoming with television commercials, the Lummis and Trauner campaigns had to buy from cable TV outlets in Denver, regular TV outlets in Cheyenne, Casper, Rapid City, and Billings, regular TV in Salt Lake City to reach much of southwest Wyoming including Star Valley, and Idaho Falls TV to get Jackson and the rest of Teton County.
He said he never produced different ads for different parts of the state, which he might have if he thought he needed a different message to appeal specifically to Mormons.
“I have a hard time thinking [of a] Lutheran, Catholic, [or] Mormon vote,” he said. “I don’t know if you could separate that out. I guess you could, if you could go poll people by religion.”