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LDS DEMOCRATS FLEX MUSCLES IN IDAHO POLITICS

Will the 1990s become the decade of the Mormon Democrat in Idaho politics?

Some think so.Democrats are happily observing the fruits of an unlikely coalition between northern Idaho Democrats and southeastern Idaho Mormons.

Of the five congressional and statewide offices the Democrats now control, three are held by members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

They include U.S. Rep. Richard Stallings, D-Idaho, in his fourth term from Idaho's 2nd Congressional District and seeking the U.S. Senate; Attorney General Larry EchoHawk, a Shoshone-Pawnee Indian who played football for Brigham Young University; and state Auditor J.D. Williams, a former Franklin County prosecutor who waged an unsuccessful bid for attorney general in 1982 and who is running for Stallings' congressional seat.

"I'm not out going to LDS wards recruiting candidates," said Idaho Democratic Party Chairman Mike Wetherell. "But I'm also not putting roadblocks in the way of candidates who happen to be LDS."

By contrast, not one of the six statewide offices controlled by the Idaho GOP is held by a Mormon. And some Republicans are openly nervous about the trend and whether their party is moving quickly enough to stem an assault upon what has been a solid brick in the GOP base.

"The Democrats know what's going on," says former Republican state Sen. Roger Madsen of Boise. "The Republicans may discover that. If they don't, we can have Sen. Stallings, Gov. EchoHawk and Congressman or Sen. Williams."

About 300,000 Idahoans belong to the Mormon Church.

The church has never surveyed the political leanings of its members. Within Idaho, Mormons voted overwhelmingly Democratic at the time of statehood. They now are traditionally Republican.

"I'm sure we have many members of both parties and many independents in the church today," said Mormon Church spokesman Don LeFevre. But the Mormon-dominated regions of Idaho have been bedrock Republican.

For instance, George Bush took 75 percent of the vote in Bonneville County in 1988. His total in Madison County was 85.2 percent and he carried 77.3 percent of the Franklin County vote. Up north, Bush carried only 38.2 percent of Shoshone County and 46.7 percent of Nez Perce County.

In his most recent campaign, Stallings carried 66.4 percent of the Madison County vote, 56 percent of the Bonneville County vote and held his GOP challenger to 51.6 percent of the Franklin County vote. In his first race for the office in 1982, Stallings won 30 percent of Madison County, 32.5 percent of Franklin and 42.8 percent of Bonneville County.

In 1990, Williams carried 61.6 percent of his native Franklin County, 53.25 percent of Bonneville County and 48.2 percent of Madison County. On the other hand, he racked up big totals in the Democratic north, such as 72 percent in Shoshone County. He won nearly 66 percent of the Nez Perce County vote.

In his 1982 race for attorney general, Williams won Franklin County with 57.4 percent, but carried only 34.5 percent of Madison County and 43.6 percent of Bonneville County.

EchoHawk made respectable showings in the southeast with 47.7 percent in Bonneville County, 48.4 percent in Madison County and 43 percent in Franklin County. He carried Shoshone County, for instance, by nearly 70 percent. His Nez Perce County total was slightly more than 66 percent.

All this suggests that traditionally Republican Mormon voters have been willing to cross party lines to vote for LDS Democrats and that northern Idaho Democrats have dropped their traditional antipathy for Mormon candidates.

What's at work here?

The genesis, say many, was Stallings' 170-vote victory in 1984 over incumbent Republican George Hansen for the 2nd Congressional District seat.

Hansen's conviction on ethics charges for which he later served a federal prison term helped overturn the seven-term lawmaker, who also belonged to the Mormon Church.

From there, Stallings began solidifying his support in what had been described as one of the most Republican congressional districts in the nation. Bush, for instance, carried the district with 65 percent in 1988.

"Religion didn't have anything to do with it, but the fact that they held onto this guy because he was an incumbent, regardless of what he was going through, I think damaged them because they were clearly putting politics ahead of principle," Stallings said.

"And in the Mormon community, that's when they sat back and said, "Well, we're conservative, but we do have principles.' "