Washington - It’s been known for months that Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Mesa, would seek the Senate seat being vacated by Republican Sen. Jon Kyl.
But when Mesa businessman Wil Cardon announced recently that he will also run for Kyl’s seat, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints suddenly had the two frontrunners in the race.
Is Arizona about to have its own “Mormon Moment”?
That term was stripped across the cover of Newsweek magazine for a June 4 story about the presence of Mormons in public life, including the Broadway hit, “The Book of Mormon,” and the bids of GOP presidential hopefuls Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman.
But analysts wonder if Flake’s and Cardon’s faith will have any impact on the Arizona Senate race.
And if there is a Mormon moment, they said, it is likely to have a uniquely Arizona spin.
Jennifer Steen, an assistant political science professor at Arizona State University, said religion may affect Romney and Huntsman on the national stage, but it isn’t that way in Arizona.
“It’s the West, it’s a place where Mormons are not as exotic,” Steen said. “If you’re not Mormon, they’re in your neighborhood, they go to school with your kids, you work with them. They’re not this strange breed.”
Indeed, one of the state’s highest-profile politicians, Senate President Russell Pearce, R-Mesa, is a Mormon, as is a challenger in his recall election, Jerry Lewis. Other Mormons in office included former Gov. Evan Mecham, former Arizona House Speaker Mark Killian, R-Mesa, and former state Rep. Jack Brown, D-St. John’s.
About 388,000 Arizonans belong to the LDS Church, just over 6 percent of the state’s 6.3 million people.
That does not mean anti-Mormon politicking has not occurred. Former Rep. Matt Salmon — a Mormon now running for the House seat Flake is vacating — believes his 2002 gubernatorial bid was scuttled by claims he would not take on the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints in Colorado City, Ariz., whose leader, Warren Jeffs, was convicted of child sexual assault last week. Others made signs reading, “Don’t vote Mormon.”
“It certainly had an impact,” said Salmon, who said 15,000 people who voted a straight Republican ticket did not vote in the governor’s race.
Romney’s faith was an issue in his failed 2008 presidential bid and scholars say that outside the Western U.S., being a Mormon can still be a political problem.
Terryl Givens, a University of Richmond professor of literature and religion, notes that Sen. Edward “Ted” Kennedy, D-Mass., “publicly exploited the Mormon affiliation” of Romney in 1994. That same year, Rep. L.F. Payne, D-Va., asked voters whether challenger George Landrith’s Mormon faith raised “serious doubts, minor doubts or no doubts.”
Givens said much of the country still feels as Charles Dickens when he said: “What the Mormons do is excellent. What they say is absurd.”
“Americans have always been happy to be entertained by Mormons,” Givens said. “But when Mormon belief and theology intrudes into the public perception, then the resistance is still there. Bigotry is especially espoused in the Bible Belt.”
Can that happen in the Southwest today? Killian, now treasurer of the Arizona Board of Regents, thinks not. For one thing, it doesn’t make political sense to make faith an issue in a state like Arizona, he says.
“If someone tries to drag that out, (church) members could vote in a bloc,” Killian said. “We do have a tendency to circle the wagons at times.”
Barring that, Killian and others reject suggestions that Mormons might vote as a bloc in the Senate race. Killian said the “independent streak” in many Arizonans means Mormons are not as politically unified here as elsewhere.
“The Mormons of this state are split politically…. You can find the most conservative Mormon and some liberal-leaning Mormons in the same ward,” Killian said. Some say politics are likely to be more of an issue for Flake than his faith, pointing to his support for eased trade and travel restrictions with Cuba, his stance on immigration and his vote to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” He was one of a handful of Republicans who voted to repeal the military ban on openly gay members.
“Cardon running against Flake shows this” Mormon split on issues, Killian said. “Only on issues of abortion and gay marriage will you find some unanimity.”
But Mormons also agree on the importance of political involvement. Givens said the church’s concern for the health of the nation is “unique among most Christian denominations.” While the church itself remains neutral, reverence for the Constitution is “woven into its theology” and is one reason why Mormons vote in high numbers.
Flake said church teachings to be civically involved have directly affected his politics and that it ties Mormons from both sides of the aisle together.
“I’ve always felt that we’re encouraged as members to be involved, civically and politically,” he said. “You have Democrats and Republicans who are active Mormons that serve here. We’ve got (Senate Majority Leader Harry) Reid and others who are Democratic Mormons. It shows we don’t have to think the same way or vote the same way.”
Flake, one of 15 Mormons in Congress, notes that when business keeps lawmakers in Washington, he often finds himself in a congregation near the Capitol with Reid, Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and Reps. Jason Chaffetz and Rob Bishop, both Utah Republicans, among others.
Back in Arizona, Flake teaches a Sunday School class to 13-year-olds and he has been seen at congregations around the Beltway. But while he takes his religion seriously, he said he would much rather do it behind the scenes and keep the focus on politics.
Cardon did not respond to requests to be interviewed for this article.
Both men’s Mormon roots run deep. Cardon is a fifth-generation Arizonan descended from pioneers settling Mesa, while Flake’s family settled Snowflake, Ariz., in the 1880s.
Salmon does not believe that voters will dwell on faith as much as they did in 2002, but said he is distressed by what he sees as Mormon politicians selectively declaring their faith.
Flake disputes the notion that he chooses when to identify with his faith, and that Arizona voters will see past it.
“I never see a reason to run from who I am,” Flake said. “There may be places where at one time, it was not possible for a Mormon to be elected nationwide, but it’s not a disqualifier, certainly not in Arizona.”
Nick Newman is a reporter for Cronkite News Service