Mara Liasson, the NPR national correspondent, was giving an overview of the civility-erasing, standards-debasing 2016 presidential race Wednesday night at Boise Metro Chamber of Commerce annual gala when she made a keen observation.
Describing how the character shortcomings of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton had upset the typical red state-blue state calculus among voters, she noted how Republican- and Mormon-dominated Utah, long among the reddest of red states, was surprisingly in play due to Trump’s latest run-in with his wayward past.
A Utah poll earlier this week, following the disclosure of Trump bragging on tape in 2005 about forcibly kissing and groping women, had Trump and Clinton in an electoral tie, each with 26 percent of the vote. Independent Evan McMullin, who is Mormon, was at 22 percent.
What it showed, Liasson told an audience of more than 1,000 people Wednesday, was that Mormons could be the last authentic values voters left. The observation rings as true for Mormons in Idaho as anywhere else.
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Liasson’s observation “might be overstating a compliment,” said Senate Pro Tem Brent Hill, R-Rexburg, who has held leadership positions in the LDS church and continues to teach Sunday school. “It’s certainly not unique to the LDS faith. I think people with deep faith have struggled with Donald Trump.
“It’s hard to defend him.”
But, he added, “there are political ideologies on the other side with Hillary Clinton that are also repulsive to many people of faith, including her positions on abortion, federalism and religious freedom in particular.”
The disclosure of Trump’s crude remarks were the last straw for leading Mormons in Utah, with Gov. Gary Herbert and Rep. Jason Chaffetz promptly repudiating his candidacy. The LDS church officially takes no position on candidates or elections, other than encouraging participation. But the LDS-owned Deseret News on Saturday urged Trump to drop out, its first pronouncement in a presidential race in 80 years. Idaho Sen. Mike Crapo, also Mormon, at first called on Trump to apologize, but then joined other Republicans on Saturday in calling for him to leave the race.
In Idaho, 27 percent of the population is Mormon, 20 percent in the Treasure Valley. Trump decisively lost the March Republican primary here to Ted Cruz, with his worst showings occurring in heavily-Mormon Eastern Idaho.
U.S. Rep Raul Labrador, a Mormon who is seeking his fourth term, told the Statesman editorial board he had to wrestle with supporting Trump after hearing his language on the recording.
“I’ve heard a lot of people say, ‘Oh, this is how people talk.’ I don’t hang out with people who talk like that. So for me it was particularly difficult to hear that,” he said. “I was completely appalled by the language. So I had to zero in on what this race is about. We have a choice between what I consider to be two not very good choices. Which one is more likely to give me the outcome that I want?”
Boise developer Tommy Ahlquist, chief operating officer of the Gardner Co. and an LDS stake leader in Meridian, backed Marco Rubio until the Florida senator dropped out of the race a week after Idaho’s primary.
“It’s been very interesting for where do you go from here,” Ahlquist said Thursday. “For me it gets very personal. I have children. I have three young girls. I worked as an ER doctor for years and took care of victims of sexual assault. My moral compass does not let me go there, so I can’t support Donald Trump. So that’s where I am, but it’s a very personal decision based on my family and who I am. It’s pretty easy for me.” Ahlquist is writing in his choice.
It was pretty easy, too, for Jon Young, an engineer at Micron. He’s a Democrat, but is put off by Clinton and is supporting McMullin.
And not just him. Trump, he said, “is not jibing really well with my Republican wife and my tea party brother-in-law because of his serious moral issues.”
“To me, what really bothers me the most is his disregard for the sacredness of our civil society,” Young said.
A friend of Young’s, Russell Elkins of Meridian, sits across the spectrum politically, a self-described conservative libertarian who originally backed Rand Paul, then Ted Cruz, and who would have backed “five or six others” before Trump. He too is voting for McMullin. Besides his apparent moral shortcomings, Elkins said, Trump is “simply not a conservative.”
“I do realize that McMullin’s chance of becoming president is very very slim, but I want to make a statement to the Republican Party: ‘Hey, you don’t have my vote automatically just because you have an ‘R.’ You have to represent conservatism because that is what I need from the Republican party,” Elkins said.
It’s been difficult to resist Trump, with close friends telling him, “If you don’t vote for Trump then you’re voting for Hillary,” he said.
“My faith is the basis for my values system,” Elkins said. “If I feel like a candidate can’t represent my value system, then I feel he can’t represent me.”