Mormons Uneasy With Trump Make A Question Of Reliably Red Utah

Jul 14, 2016
Originally published on August 1, 2016 12:07 pm

You'd be hard pressed to find a more deeply red county within a deeply red state than Cache County in the mountains of northern Utah.

Eighty-three percent of voters in this heavily Mormon enclave went for Mitt Romney in 2012. So heads turned when Jonathan Choate and a colleague abruptly resigned from the Cache County GOP's Executive Committee after the party refused to publicly condemn Donald Trump.

"He is a charismatic leader who I think is clinically narcissistic," says Choate, "and his core is whatever he wants it to be at any given moment, whatever's going to give him the power and attention."

Choate is a friendly, 40-year-old man with a booming voice. His bushy red beard extends to his chest. Apart from a two-year Latter Day Saints mission in Arkansas, he's lived his life in the college town of Logan, Utah, where he runs an information technology business.

He was already leaning Libertarian but says his decision to resign and leave the GOP altogether can be blamed on what he calls Trump's divisive rhetoric on race and religion.

"The LDS church has a recent memory of being divided out based on religion, and being driven from the United States," Choate says. "At the time the LDS Church came to Utah, it was not the United States; they literally had to flee the country."

From Red To Purple?

Choate's opinions on Trump are shared by enough Utah Mormons that recent polls have shown Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton in a dead heat there.

That's remarkable given the last time a Democratic presidential candidate won Utah it was Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964.

Chris Karpowitz, political science professor at Brigham Young University, says if Utah is truly competitive come November, it likely won't be because Mormon voters cross over to Clinton.

"I think the question is ... who will vote for [Libertarian Party candidate] Gary Johnson, and who will choose not to come out to the polls at all and just sit this one out saying they're dissatisfied with all of the alternatives in front of them?" Karpowitz says.

For sure, there are many undecided voters like Gina Worthen. A stay-at-home mom, she's also the vice chair of the Cache County Republican Party and doesn't fault her two colleagues for speaking out.

"I agree with what they said about Trump," Worthen says. "He's at the bottom of my favorite people list."

But Worthen stopped short of resigning or leaving the party. There are just too many good candidates down ticket, she says, and she's trying to convince fellow Republicans that they can still turn out to vote and just leave the presidential box blank.

After all, she may.

"I think that people in Utah really do look at character, it's the Mormon culture," Worthen says. "We don't like lying, we don't like cheating, we want people of good character."

This rift over Trump is a complicated one. Many Mormon Republicans say they want to be loyal to their party but for the first time in generations, politics and faith are colliding.

A Proud 'Trump Mormon'

There are still conservative Mormons who caution against reading too much into early polls or what happened in Cache County.

"By them resigning and saying they're going to vote for a third party, they're traitors," says Janalee Tobias.

Just inside the door of her house in the Salt Lake City suburb of South Jordan is a wrought iron sculpture of two revolvers and the sign "We Don't Dial 911." Tobias recently described herself on Facebook as a Trump Mormon for "Time and All Eternity," a reference to Mormon marriage rites in the Temple.

"Donald Trump wants to make America great again," she says. "Think about what made America great in the beginning: There were laws and people came here legally and didn't have their hand out."

Tobias thinks Mormons will come around to Trump after the Republican National Convention next week. She points out that he's a family man who doesn't drink.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

You'd be hard pressed to find a more reliably Republican religious group than Mormons, let alone a more reliably Republican state than Utah. The last time Utah voted for a Democrat for president was in 1964. But as we have heard over and over, this is a year when conventional wisdom about politics is getting tossed on its head. NPR's Kirk Siegler reports from Northern Utah.

(SOUNDBITE OF ORGAN MUSIC)

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: The historic Tabernacle in downtown Logan, Utah, is a staple of everyday life for Mormons in Cache County like Jonathan Choate.

JONATHAN CHOATE: I've performed up there many times. I'm a singer, so we always do a Messiah performance.

SIEGLER: Conservative Republican politics is also a staple for many of this area's Mormon families, which is why heads turned when Choate and a colleague abruptly resigned from the Cache County GOP's Executive Committee because the party refused to publicly condemn Donald Trump.

CHOATE: He is a charismatic leader who I think is clinically narcissistic. And his - what his core is - whatever he wants it to be at a given moment, whatever's going to get him the power and attention.

SIEGLER: Choate is a friendly 40-year-old man with a booming voice. His bushy, red beard extends down to his chest. He runs an IT business and leans libertarian. He says as a Latter Day Saint, his decision to leave the GOP altogether can be blamed on what he calls Trump's divisive rhetoric on race and religion.

CHOATE: The LDS Church has a recent memory of being divided out based on religion and being driven from the United States. The time the LDS Church came to Utah, it was not the United States. They literally had to flee the country.

SIEGLER: Choate's opinions on Trump are shared by enough Utah Mormons that two recent polls have shown Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton remarkably in a dead heat here. There's also growing support for the libertarian candidate Gary Johnson, and for sure there are still a lot of undecideds, like Gina Worthen. She's Jonathan Choate's former colleague, the vice chair of the Cache County Republicans and a proud stay-at-home mom.

GINA WORTHEN: You know, and I agree with what they said about Trump. I - he's at the bottom of my favorite people list (laughter).

SIEGLER: But Worthen refused to resign or leave the party. There are just too many good candidates down ticket, she says, and she's trying to convince fellow Republicans that they can still turn out but just leave the presidential box blank. She might.

WORTHEN: I think that people in Utah. Really do look at character. I think it's a Mormon culture. We don't like lying. We don't like cheating. We want people of good character.

SIEGLER: This rift is a complicated one. So many Mormon Republicans will tell you they want to be loyal to their party and its tradition. But for the first time in generations, their politics and their faith are colliding.

JANALEE TOBIAS: OK.

SIEGLER: Walking into Janalee Tobias's house two hours away in a Salt Lake City suburb, the first thing you see is a wrought iron sculpture of two revolvers and the words, we don't dial 911. She admires Trump's recent pro-gun statements, and she doesn't like what she's seeing up in Cache County.

TOBIAS: By them resigning and their - saying they're going to vote for third party and they resign from the Republican Party, they're traitors.

SIEGLER: Tobias calls herself an outlier, a Trump Mormon for time and all eternity, as she recently posted to Facebook. It's a Mormon expression referencing marriage in the temple.

TOBIAS: And I started getting this really, like - it's in my message box, and even people - how can you be a Trump Mormon? And I'm like, why? If you listen to his speeches, you will be inspired that he wants to make America great again.

SIEGLER: Tobias thinks Mormons will come around on Trump after the convention next week. He's a family man, she says, who doesn't drink. Kirk Siegler, NPR News, Salt Lake City. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.