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GOP activists warn that LDS voter distaste for President Trump could hurt in November

FILE - In this Aug. 9, 2018, photo, resident Donald Trump speaks during a meeting with state leaders about prison reform at Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, N.J.
FILE - In this Aug. 9, 2018, photo, resident Donald Trump speaks during a meeting with state leaders about prison reform at Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, N.J.
Carolyn Kaster, Associated Press

WASHINGTON — In 2016, some of the Republican Party’s most reliable voters — members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — rebuked candidate Donald Trump at the ballot box. Two years later, many are so uneasy with President Trump that they could sit out the midterms, jeopardizing GOP candidates in several states and races critical to Republican control of Washington.

Indeed, with just 13 weeks before the November congressional elections, political operatives are warning that members of the church might stay home, denying Republican candidates not just their votes but their typically robust financial and volunteer support.

“Mormons were more of a reliable voting bloc before the Trump era. And now things are more up in the air,” said Steven Conger, a Nevada Republican political strategist who is a member of the church. “You see that with both voters and donors.”

The church members are a small but significant portion of the GOP base. Although less than 2 percent of the U.S. adult population are members of the faith, they typically vote overwhelmingly for the GOP. According to a 2014 Pew Research Center study, 70 percent of church members in the United States identify with the Republican Party or say they lean toward the GOP. That compares with 19 percent who identify as or lean Democratic, the largest gap of any other religious group in the country.

While many members of the faith said they appreciate the tax cuts Trump signed into law, the judges he has nominated to the Supreme Court, and the outreach he’s made to their community, many can’t overlook his hardline immigration positions, divisive rhetoric and the Stormy Daniels scandal.

That’s raised concerns for Republicans running for office this fall, especially in the Mountain West, where the lion’s share of the country’s LDS population is located.

Arizona, Nevada and Utah are hosting competitive House, Senate or gubernatorial races in November.

“If it’s a close election and turnout is down among Mormon Republicans, that could make a difference in a number of states,” said Quin Monson, a consultant for several GOP campaigns in Utah who has studied the LDS vote extensively at Brigham Young University.

After George W. Bush won 80 percent of the LDS vote in 2004 and Mitt Romney, himself a church member, won 78 percent in 2012, support for Trump among church members dropped to 61 percent in 2016, according to exit polls.

Not much has changed in the numbers since November 2016. Recent Gallup tracking poll data show that while 87 percent of Republicans nationally approve of Trump’s job performance, just 61 percent of LDS curch members do.

And Monson and others noted that figure doesn’t tell the whole story, adding that it would be much higher at this point for most other Republican presidents.

“You might think at first glance Mormons are overwhelmingly pro-Trump, but they’re not overly enthusiastic about Trump,” Monson said. “Some Mormons are a little lost. They’re not Democrats, but they’re not sure of where the Republican Party is going.”

Take Rick Roskelley. A church member and a GOP activist from Las Vegas, he had been attending caucus meetings and donating to GOP candidates since the Nixon administration. But after Trump won the 2016 Republican presidential nomination, Roskelley changed his voter registration from Republican to Libertarian and cast his ballot for Gary Johnson.

Heading into the midterms, Roskelley isn’t sure how he’s going to vote. But given Trump’s current positions on immigration and trade, he said he’s going to give third-party candidates a harder look and would even consider voting for a moderate Democrat.

“(Trump) has brought to light an element of the Republican Party that I don’t really care for. They used to have a small voice, but now they have a much bigger voice,” Roskelley said. “So right now I have no inclination to go back to the Republican Party.”

Immigration is a particularly important issue for church members, many of whom have ancestors who settled out west to escape religious persecution in the 1800s. The church, which typically stays out of politics, released a statement earlier this summer saying it was “deeply troubled” by the Trump administration’s policy that separated immigrant families at the U.S.-Mexico border.

Unlike Roskelley, others are willing to look past that aspect of the Trump presidency. West Allen, another Republican activist from Las Vegas and a church member, said that while he doesn’t agree with everything Trump does, he believes that Trump has been positive for the country on the whole, and is certainly preferable to a Democratic administration.

“They look at Trump like a brother or child,” Allen said of the fellow members of his congregation. “When he does something that’s untoward, we encourage him to do better. But we don’t kick him out of the family.”

Trump has made an effort to be a member of that family since taking office. He met with LDS leaders during a visit to Utah last December. On July 24, he released a statement commemorating Pioneer Day, which celebrates the arrival of the first Mormons to the Salt Lake Valley. And members of the church have praised his administration’s “religious liberty task force.”

“Politically, they’ve actually done a really smart job of reaching out to the Mormon community,” said Chad Heywood, a church member who previously served as the executive director of the Arizona Republican Party.

And yet, Republicans running in areas with a significant LDS electorate see the environment as challenging. Several church members themselves are running for office, such as Dean Heller and Cresent Hardy in Nevada and Mitt Romney and Mia Love in Utah, and Republicans hope that will allow them to establish their own brands separate from Trump. Love is facing Salt Lake County mayor Ben McAdams, a Democrat who can draw his own distinction between Love and the president as a church member in Democrat-rich Salt Lake City.

Dave Hansen, who is managing Love’s campaign, acknowledged they might have a more difficult time than usual pushing church members to the polls, but that having a well-known figure such as Romney on the ballot will be a boon to their efforts.

“Having Mitt Romney there has kind of taken away whatever negative there could be on turnout of people not voting because of Trump,” Hansen said. “I mean that was a godsend, to be honest with you, having him there.”

As was the case in 2016, some church members who are unhappy with the direction of the GOP will still pull the lever for the Republicans this fall when faced with the alternatives of liberal Democrats, long-shot independents or not voting at all. Heidi Wixom, a longtime Nevada GOP activist and church member, said that while she “can’t tolerate” Trump and has tried to “ignore” what’s happening in Washington, she will still most likely vote Republican again this fall.

But if candidates are looking for the additional assistance she’s provided before, they’ll have to go elsewhere.

“My heart just isn’t in it right now as it has been in the past,” Wixom said.