By Alec MacGillis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 4, 2007
It is the rare presidential candidate who comes to Idaho to raise money, but there was Mitt Romney last month, packing more than 100 people, at up to $2,300 a head, into the Crystal Ballroom in Boise.
"Nearly every seat was filled. Just about everybody that's anybody was there," said Grant Ipsen, a former Idaho state legislator. "I don't think I'd ever attended another fundraiser for a federal candidate in Idaho."
There was no great mystery why Romney was in town. The former Massachusetts governor is a Mormon, as are about one-quarter of Idaho residents, including Ipsen and many others who turned out for the lunchtime event. The fundraiser was bracketed by two others in the Mountain West: one in Las Vegas and another outside Phoenix. At both of those events, Mormons made up at least half the crowd, organizers said. Altogether, the two-day swing brought in well over $1 million for Romney.
As he vies for a place in the top tier of contenders for the Republican nomination, Romney is reaping enormous benefits from being part of a growing religion that has traditionally emphasized civic engagement and mutual support. Mormons are fueling his strong fundraising operation, which this week reported raising $21 million, the most of any Republican candidate. And they are laying the foundation for a potent grass-roots network -- including a cadre of young church members experienced in door-to-door missions who say they are looking forward to hitting the streets for him.
"When Mormons get mobilized, they're like dry kindling. You drop a match and get impressive results quickly," said University of Notre Dame political scientist David Campbell, who is Mormon. "It's almost a unique group in the way in which it's organized at the local level and the channels through which mobilization can occur."
But the intensity of this support has a potential downside as Romney tries to establish an identity separate from a religion still regarded warily by many Americans -- a quarter of whom, polls suggest, do not want a Mormon president.
Romney's fellow Mormons also find themselves in a bind. In dozens of interviews, Mormons across the country said they are excited by Romney's candidacy and eager to do what they can for him, just like members of other religious or ethnic groups with favorite-son candidates. Yet they are also hesitant to state their support too strongly, to avoid provoking anti-Mormon bias or violating church rules against politicking inside church walls.
"I know a lot of people who will support him just because he's a Mormon -- and I know a lot of other people who are edgy about that," said Paul Starita, a Minnesota native attending the church-owned Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah.
Many Mormons backing Romney recognize the risks but say it would be wrong to suppress their solidarity. Heather Johnson, a mother of three transplanted from Utah to North Carolina, started a "Moms4Mitt" Web site and hopes to campaign for him in South Carolina, a key early state in the primary process. That will be possible, she notes, only because her Mormon "brothers and sisters" will put her up, and help watch her kids, wherever she goes.
"You cannot deny that there is a network in the church, a natural network," she said. "Some people make out like it's a conspiracy, but it's a natural networking system. It's just the way our church is set up."
The dilemma faced by Romney and members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or LDS, as the church is known, recalls in some ways what John F. Kennedy faced running as a Roman Catholic in 1960. Among the factors that make this situation different, say political scientists, is that Mormons are almost unmatched in their cohesiveness and capacity for unified action.
Campaign spokesman Kevin Madden said Romney welcomes the backing he is receiving from Mormons, which he compared to the help that other candidates have received from their ethnic or religious roots, such as Michael Dukakis's support from fellow Greek Americans in 1988. But Madden said Mormon support makes up only one element of Romney's base.
"We are happy of and proud of all the support we have received from members of the LDS. A lot of these supporters are interested in helping the governor because they think he would make a great president," Madden said. But, he added, "if we're going to win, it's going to require a broad spectrum of the American people."
A breakdown of the donors who gave the $21 million -- $6 million more than former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, his nearest competitor -- will not be available for another 10 days. And Romney's political action committees, which have accumulated $8 million since 2004, have received substantial amounts from non-Mormons such as former colleagues in Boston finance circles, friends and associates in Michigan, where he grew up, and from business executives such as eBay chief executive Meg Whitman and Compuware founder Peter Karmanos.
But based on the fundraising he conducted before this year, Romney's other sectors of support are likely to be dwarfed by the backing he is receiving from LDS members. Wealthy Mormons giving to Romney's PACs include the Marriotts, the Bethesda-based hotel family, who have given more than $390,000; the family of Jon Huntsman Sr., the owner of a major Utah chemical company, which has given more than $170,000; and the family of Utah Jazz owner Larry H. Miller, which has given $100,000.
Also giving heavily have been thousands of rank-and-file church members. After Romney last fall sent direct-mail solicitations to Republicans nationwide, his two biggest state-level PACs received 319 checks from Utah, which is about two-thirds Mormon -- a third of the total number of checks he received in the year's final quarter. In the same period, he received seven checks from Massachusetts, where he has lived more than 30 years.
Of course, not all Mormons are supporting Romney, and those who are stress that they like him not only because of his religion. They point to his experience as a consulting and venture-capital executive and as governor, and most of all, his success running the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics. They say the socially conservative platform he is running on puts him in line with Mormon voters, 85 percent of whom supported George W. Bush in 2004, according to exit polls.
Yet church members are also open about the pride they take in seeing a Mormon with a credible presidential bid, a feeling stronger than what they felt for the short-lived candidacy of Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) in 2000. Romney has deep roots in Utah (his great-grandfather designed the tabernacle in St. George), and older Mormons remember Romney's father, George, an auto executive and Michigan governor who made a brief run for president in 1968.
"He comes from the same background as his dad," said Jewell Bartholomew, a retired nurse in Orem, Utah. Referring to her $100 donation last fall to Romney's Michigan PAC, she said, "I would be lying if I said his LDS background did not have something to do with it."A Stronghold in the West
After Utah, which holds a quarter of the church's 5.7 million U.S. members, the highest concentrations of Mormons are in Idaho, Wyoming, Nevada and Arizona, in that order. California, by virtue of its size, has the second-largest Mormon population in absolute terms -- about 750,000.
While the church is strongest in the West, it is represented in almost every corner of the country, in congregations organized into "stakes," "wards" and "branches." Its hierarchy is headed by a president and two counselors and a Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, while congregations are led by laymen, a role Romney served.
Church leaders encourage members to vote and be involved in politics, and they occasionally weigh in on "moral" issues such as ballot initiatives on same-sex marriage or gambling. But to preserve the church's tax exemption, its leaders warn against making endorsements inside churches or using membership lists or the church's Web site for partisan purposes.
Romney's campaign edged against these boundaries last fall when Kem Gardner, a Utah developer whose family has given $140,000 to Romney's PACs, set up a meeting in Salt Lake City with a church apostle, a Romney consultant and one of Romney's sons. Documents obtained by the Boston Globe showed that the apostle, Elder Jeffrey R. Holland, suggested promoting Romney via the alumni association of the business school at church-owned Brigham Young University, a group with 5,500 members in 40 chapters.
Days later, two deans from the business school sent an e-mail rallying support for Romney to 150 members of the school's advisory council and 50 chapter leaders of the alumni association, the Management Society. Because it is legally part of church-owned BYU, the society is also prohibited from backing candidates. After the Globe reported on the efforts in October, church leaders disavowed any campaign on Romney's behalf.
Church spokesman Michael Purdy reiterated the church's neutrality. "You need to make a clear distinction between the church as an institution and what members do as individuals," he said in an e-mail interview. "The church's mission is to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ, not to elect politicians."
Such is the strength of the Mormon network, though, that rules against endorsing or using church lists do not diminish its value. "You have official statements from church headquarters and then the actual activity of everyone below that level," said University of Utah political scientist Ronald Hrebenar, who is not Mormon. "There is this network, they know who they are and how to contact each other, and it can be enormously useful."
This description fits the Management Society. Society chapter leaders around the country say they discourage fellow members or guest speakers from making direct appeals on behalf of Romney or other candidates during their chapters' monthly luncheons. But inevitably, lines blur somewhat, members say.
In Las Vegas, the chapter's president, Adam Creer, is also on Romney's Nevada fundraising committee, and he sent e-mails to many of the chapter's roughly 80 members inviting them to the March event at the Las Vegas Four Seasons hotel, which drew 350 people.
Creer, a security systems executive, did not return calls. A member of the chapter's board, Phil Richards, said that it was no surprise society members would be raising money for Romney but that they tried to keep that separate.
"The Management Society does not . . . have anything to do with elections," Richards said. "Now, do people in the [society] gravitate towards certain kinds of candidates? They probably do. Of course we have favorites."
The enthusiasm for Romney is most open in online networking sites such as Facebook.com, where Mormon students predominate in pro-Romney chat rooms. But the students also discuss the challenge in promoting Romney without provoking bias. Krissie Ostlund, 20, a community college student in Dunkirk, Md., urged others to explain Mormonism to friends and thereby pave the way for Romney.
"Talk about it. Bring it up with Bill the checker at Safeway," she wrote. "Use it as a tool to familiarize other people with what it means to be a member of the [church] and why having an LDS president would be ideal."
Database editor Sarah Cohen contributed to this report.