“I love the Mormons,” Donald Trump told a crowd of a thousand supporters at a Salt Lake City rally the weekend before the Utah Republican caucuses in March. According to Trump, the feeling is mutual. “I have many friends that live in Salt Lake,” Trump said. “I’ve had many Mormons work for me.”
Trump is counting on his supposed legions of Mormon friends to help him secure the heavily Mormon states of Utah and Arizona, both of which he needs to carry in November to have any chance of winning the White House. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or LDS, is the most reliably Republican religious group in the country. Despite Trump’s claims of massive Mormon support, however, many Mormons have not looked fondly on his candidacy. In fact, most of Trump’s Mormon friends must have stayed home on caucus night in Utah. He finished third (14 percent) to Ted Cruz (69.2 percent) and John Kasich (16.8 percent). Things haven’t looked much better since. A poll from earlier in the summer showed Clinton and Trump tiedat 35 percent. The Clinton campaign is confident enough that the state is up for grabs that it’s sending Bill Clinton to campaign there later this month. Utah hasn’t voted Democratic since 1964. In 2012, Mitt Romney carried it by 48 points.
Romney, the most famous Mormon in the world, is also the most famous Never Trumper, which surely hasn’t helped the candidate’s cause. Yet Mormon wariness towards Trump goes beyond the GOP’s 2012 presidential nominee. In early July, at aclosed-door meeting on Capitol Hill intended to build party unity, Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona—another prominent Latter-day Saint whose Mormon pioneer ancestors helped settle northern Arizona—confronted Trump about his attacks against Mexicans and against Gonzalo Curiel, the Mexican American judge overseeing the Trump University lawsuit.
The Mormon distaste for Trump also goes beyond establishment Republicans like Romney and Flake. In late June, Tea Party–backed Sen. Mike Lee of Utah responded angrily to a conservative radio host who chastised him for failing to toe the party line and endorse Trump. To explain his refusal to back the nominee, Lee pointed to Trump’s “religiously intolerant” statements, which have made him “widely unpopular in my state, in part because my state consists of people who are members of a religious minority church.” Citing one of the darkest days of the Mormons’ long history of enduring state-sponsored religious persecution, Lee continued, the Mormons are “a people who were ordered exterminated by the governor of Missouri in 1838. And statements like … [banning Muslims from the U.S.] make them nervous.” In Cleveland, at the Republican National Convention, Lee was a vocal opponent of GOP leaders working to put down anti-Trump dissent. Lee and other Republicans anxious about the Trump nomination tried to secure a rules package that would have unbound delegates from state primary and caucus results and allowed them to “vote their conscience.”
In May, the man Mike Lee unseated in the Senate through a primary challenge, Bob Bennett, spent his last breaths bemoaning Trump’s bigoted stance on Islam and hoping to repair the breach. Days before he died, from his bed in the George Washington University Hospital, Bennett, who had been left partially paralyzed by a stroke, asked his son, “Are there any Muslims in the hospital? I’d love to go up to every single one of them to thank them for being in this country and to apologize to them on behalf of the Republican Party for Donald Trump.”