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Utah governor calls Steve Bannon a 'Mormon bigot'

Former White House strategist Steve Bannon speaks during a rally for U.S. Senate hopeful Roy Moore on Tuesday, Dec. 5, 2017, in Fairhope Ala.
Former White House strategist Steve Bannon speaks during a rally for U.S. Senate hopeful Roy Moore on Tuesday, Dec. 5, 2017, in Fairhope Ala.
Brynn Anderson, Associated Press

SALT LAKE CITY — Gov. Gary Herbert slammed Steve Bannon, former chief strategist to President Donald Trump, as a "Mormon bigot" Wednesday after Bannon accused Mitt Romney of hiding behind his LDS faith to avoid serving in Vietnam.

The governor called it "a low blow because of politics" and said Bannon's apparent effort to influence Utah's upcoming Senate race was not welcome.

“This smacks of good old-fashioned Mormon bigotry. I think that’s what Steve Bannon has demonstrated with his comment, is just he’s a Mormon bigot,” the governor said on KSL Newsradio's "The Doug Wright Show."

"Clearly there’s many ways to serve your country," Herbert said, joining other Utah leaders in condemning Bannon's comments made during a rally for embattled GOP Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore.

Bannon, the governor said, "clearly has no idea what it’s like to serve on a two-year LDS mission in a far away land. There’s more than one way to in fact go out there and do good things for your fellow man."

Herbert said Bannon was attacking The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints "at the same time by attacking Mitt Romney," pointing out that the church had limited its number of missionaries during the Vietnam War.

"They put a quota in place, so fewer missionaries actually went out during that time of the Vietnam War, because they were sensitive about the fact that we had a draft and a war going on and wanted to make sure that we did our part," he said.

While campaigning for Moore on Tuesday night, Bannon told a crowd gathered for a rally that Romney, the GOP's 2012 presidential nominee, avoided military service during the Vietnam War by instead serving a mission for the LDS Church in France.

"By the way, Mitt, while we're on the subject of honor and integrity, you avoided service, brother," Bannon said. "Mitt, here's how it is, brother: The college deferments, we can debate that — but you hid behind your religion. You went to France to be a missionary while guys were dying in rice paddies in Vietnam."

Bannon didn't stop there.

"You had five sons, not one day of service in Afghanistan and Iraq. … Where were the Romneys during those wars? You want to talk about honor and integrity, brother, bring it. Bring it down here to Alabama," he said.

Romney had tweeted Monday: "Roy Moore in the U.S. Senate would be a stain on the GOP and on the nation. Leigh Corfman and other victims are courageous heroes. No vote, no majority is worth losing our honor, our integrity."

Moore is accused by Corfman and others of sexual misconduct with teenagers years ago, charges he has denied. Trump endorsed Moore on Monday, shortly before heading to Utah for a brief visit to announce reductions to two national monuments.

Romney has not responded to Bannon's statements. He was one of Trump's toughest critics during the 2016 campaign, labeling him a fraud, a phony and a con artist during a speech at the University of Utah.

Trump had a "wonderful conversation" on the phone with Romney late Tuesday, spokeswoman Kellyanne Conway said on CNN. She would not say whether Trump would support Romney, a former Massachusetts governor, in the Senate race in Utah.

"I didn't see Gov. Romney file papers to run for Orrin Hatch's seat. Hatch may run for re-election," Conway told the cable news network. Later, she added, "Gov. Romney would want to be in public service in many different roles."

The governor said Bannon's personal attacks against Romney have no role in politics.

Bannon, he said, is "just totally out of touch with reality. And he’s in some kind of la-la land. And his zeal to try to defend, which is almost becoming the indefensible with Judge Roy Moore, is what’s getting in the way here. He’s just irrational."

Herbert suggested Republicans "need to take a step back and say, 'This is not the road we want to go down.'"

Bannon, the governor said, appears to be inserting himself in the Utah Senate race after first saying he would find a candidate to run against Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, next year and now apparently trying to block Romney from running.

"I’m just saying to Steve Bannon, stay out of Utah. We don’t need you. We don’t want you. You don’t line up with American values. You don’t line up with Utah values," Herbert said.

Earlier Wednesday, the governor said in a tweet that Romney "and his family are honorable people and represent the very best of Utah values. Utahns reject the ugly politics and tactics of" Bannon and included the hashtag #stayout.

Hatch has said he will decide by the end of the year whether to seek an eighth term, but Romney is already putting together a campaign. Hatch has also backed Trump's endorsement of Moore, saying the president had little choice.

Wednesday evening, Hatch stressed he had not endorsed Moore himself nor does he intend to, telling Utahns on what he said was an access call that he believes the allegations against the Alabama Republican "are incredibly serious."

In his earlier statement, Hatch called Bannon's attack "disappointing and unjustified" and said Romney "has sought every opportunity" to serve the country.

Hatch also said he resents "anyone attacking any person's religious views, but particularly our own Christian LDS faith and the selfless service of missionary work."

The longtime senator said he would "be more than happy to sit down with Mr. Bannon and help him understand more about the LDS Church at his convenience. I’ve got a copy of the Book of Mormon with his name on it."

Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, also weighed in, tweeting: "Mitt Romney is a good man. Whether you agree or disagree with him on any matter of public policy, you can’t credibly call into question his patriotism or moral character — especially on the basis of his religious beliefs or his outstanding service as a missionary."

Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams, a Democratic candidate for the 4th Congressional District seat held by Rep. Mia Love, R-Utah, said in a tweet that Romney "served his faith & humanity as a missionary."

McAdams said Bannon's "remarks are despicable & anti-religion. Honor, integrity define both Mitt & our troops who served."

Love, who has been endorsed in past races by Romney, said he "and his family are my friends. They love their country, they are participating members of a religion many of our Utah families share. To question their devotion to either is unacceptable."

Evan McMullin, a conservative who mounted a Utah-based independent challenge to Trump in last year's presidential election, called Bannon's statements about Romney a "foolish move" in a CNN interview.

"Bannon has been reported to be seeking ways to block a potential Gov. Romney run for the Senate in 2018," McMullin said. "If this is how he's going to do that, by attacking the Mormon faith, I can promise you that will backfire."

Sutherland Institute President Boyd Matheson, who met with Bannon in October about a possible Senate run, described the former White House chief strategist as "definitely a political animal, first, last and always."

Matheson, who announced recently he would not be a candidate in 2018, said Bannon's attack on Romney's "religion and his character to score some political points at a rally is really what's wrong with politics today."

Jason Perry, head of the U.'s Hinckley Institute of Politics, said Bannon made a "gross miscalculation" if he believed he was helping Hatch by going after the faith he shares with Romney and a majority of Utahns.

Bannon, he said, "may be using the issues here to fan flames somewhere else, but his interest here has been in Orrin Hatch or other candidates so long as they're not Mitt Romney. What he did was consolidate the political forces, not divide them."

Contributing: Dennis Romboy