Mormons in the Next Congress, Part I – Senate: A Tight Race in Oregon

Part I of a series by Guestblogger Bob King

Two Latter-day Saints are candidates for the U.S. Senate this year. One is a Republican incumbent in a tough race to hold on to his seat. The other is Democratic congressman running hard for an open Senate seat. Ironically, the two Mormons are second cousins. Their success on November 4th will determine whether there will be four, five or six Latter-day Saints serving in the Senate in January 2009.

Today, five of the one hundred members of the United States Senate – five percent – are members of the Church. Mormons make up slightly less than two percent of the U.S. population, which means the percentage of Latter-day Saints in the Senate is two and a half times the percentage of Church members in the country as a whole. A further indication of Mormon political clout, is the fact that the leader of the U.S. Senate, the Senate Majority Leader, is a Church member – Senator Harry Reid (D-Nevada). Reid is the Mormon who has held the highest ranking position ever in the Congress.

Mormons Currently Serving in the U.S. Senate

All five of the current LDS Senators are from the Western United States.

Both of Utah’s senators – Orrin Hatch (R) and Robert F. Bennett (R) – are Mormon. Every Utah Senator since 1951 has been a Church member, which is not surprising since Utah has a population that is 72% LDS. Hatch was first elected to the senate in 1976, and he is up for reelection in 2012. Bennett was first elected in 1992, and he is up for reelection in 2010.

One of Idaho’s senators, Mike Crapo (R), is the first Church member ever to serve as a U.S. senator from Idaho. The fact that Idaho’s first Mormon senator was only elected in 1998, despite the fact that the state has the second largest percentage of Latter-day Saints (27%), reflects the intensity of the Mormon-non-Mormon political struggles in the past. Crapo, the newest LDS senator, was first elected in 1998, was reelected in 2004 and is up for reelection in 2010.

Harry Reid (D) is the third Mormon to represent Nevada in the U.S. Senate, though the state has a population that is just over 7% LDS. Reid was first elected to the Senate in 1986, and he is up for reelection in 2010.

Gordon Smith (R) is the first Mormon to represent Oregon in the U.S. Senate, and the state has an LDS population of only 4%. He was first elected in 1996, and he is up for reelection this year.

Because the term of office in the Senate is six years with staggered terms, one-third of the Senate seats are up for election every two years. Senator Gordon Smith (R-Oregon) is the single sitting Mormon Senator facing the electorate this year. In the next election in 2010 three of the five current LDS senators will be up for reelection.

Gordon Smith’s Uphill Battle in the Oregon Senate Race

Senator Smith is facing a difficult race in his bid for reelection to a third term in the Senate. The margins in his first two Senate races were very narrow. He lost his first attempt to win a Senate seat in early 1996 in a special open seat election by a margin of 47% to his opponent’s 48% (Oregon Secretary of State, Special Election Results January 30, 1996). But in the general election later that same year, Smith won an open Senate seat by 50% to 46% (Oregon Secretary of State, General Election Results November 5, 1996). He won reelection in 2002 with an impressive 56% to 40% (Oregon Secretary of State, General Election Results November 5, 2002).

Oregon, however, has become increasingly hostile territory for Republicans. Currently Smith is the only Republican holding statewide office, and of Oregon’s five House seats only one is in Republican hands. He is the only Republican Senator from the West Coast.

Senator Smith’s Church membership is not particularly helpful politically. Mormons make up less than 4% of Oregon’s population, and Oregon has the highest percentage of people in any U.S. state who do not claim any religious affiliation (27%). It also has a higher percentage of traditional evangelicals (30%) than the national average (27%), and these groups have opposed Mormon political candidates such as Mitt Romney. (Survey dissects Oregon’s thorny religious divide, The Oregonian, February 26, 2008.)

Gordon Smith has taken a moderate position on key political issues, reflecting the moderate views of a majority of his constituents. His record is much more moderate than the conservative record of the other LDS Republican senators. For example, the respected Washington publication National Journal, which ranks the voting records of members of Congress on a conservative-liberal scale, has rated Smith’s voting record 48% conservative in 2007. Idaho Senator Mike Crapo had an 85% conservative rating, Robert F. Bennett of Utah, 74% and Orin Hatch, also of Utah, rated 67%. (See “Interest Group Ratings” at Project Vote Smart)

Senator Smith’s voting record has shifted in a moderate direction. The shift was particularly evident in vote ratings for 2007 – the year after the Democrats picked up a significant number of seats in both House and Senate and took control of both houses of Congress for the first time in 12 years. On votes considered important by the American Civil Liberties Union, a liberal civil rights advocacy organization, Smith received 40% in 2001-2002, 0% in 2003-2004, 33% in 2005-2006, and 57% in 2007. The ratings of the League of Conservation Voters, a liberal environmental organization, show the same shift from conservative to more moderate positions. He received 28% in 2003-2004, 45% in 2005, 16% in 2006, but it jumped to 73% in 2007. This trend was evident with a number of other groups as well. (See “Interest Group Ratings” for Senator Gordon Smith at Project Vote Smart)

Even when he may have to pay a political price, however, Smith has shown a willingness to make unpopular choices. When the Senate approved legislation in early July to permit domestic electronic surveillance, Smith supported the legislation as a reasonable compromise between civil liberties and national security. The state’s other senator, Ron Wyden (D-Oregon), voted against the legislation and vehemently denounced it as violating the rights of individual citizens. (“Wyden, Smith polar opposites on spy bill,” The Oregonian, July 10, 2008.) Smith also supported stem cell research legislation which became the first bill vetoed by President Bush. The legislation was strongly opposed by conservative right-to-life groups, but Smith – as well as LDS Senators Hatch, Reid, and Bennett but not Crapo– supported passage of the bill. (“Senate Approves Embryonic Stem Cell Bill,” Washington Post, April 13, 2007.)

Smith has tried to bridge some of the contradictory policy issues between his more moderate views and his vocal progressive constituents. In one of the more recent controversies, his Mormonism was highlighted. At a gay rights forum in Washington, D.C., Smith was asked about reconciling his support for domestic partner benefits for same-sex couples with his support for a constitutional amendment that defines marriage as between one man and one woman. Smith said, “Part of what I fear, as you start defining marriage – we have a long history of doing that in this country, and my Mormon pioneer ancestors were the victims of that. They were literally driven from the United Sates in the dead of winter for following their religious beliefs. I don’t want that coming back. But there are some on the front pages of your newspapers who are trying to now.”

Smith was attacked by his Senate opponent and by some gay and lesbian activists for these comments. The Oregonian, the leading Portland newspaper, said Smith “has worked hard to maintain good relations with the gay and lesbian community . . . [and] supports Oregon’s civil union law and favors broader rights for domestic partners.” The controversy led Smith to apologize. When asked about the issue, he said “If you’d grown up a Mormon, and spent your life trying to get out from the shadow of that legacy – it’s an emotional scar that you scar that you carry. I meant no offense by sharing that part of my history.” (“Gordon Smith apologizes for comment seemingly linking polygamy, same-sex marriage,” The Oregonian, June 18, 2008; “Oregon Senator Apologizes for Linking Gay Marriage, Polygamy,” The Wall Street Journal, June 18, 2008.)

Recent voter polls have shown Smith ahead of his Democratic opponent, Jeff Merkley, Speaker of the Oregon House of Representatives, who won a hard fought primary election in May. But the margin is uncomfortable for an incumbent. Four statewide polls in the first half of 2008 have shown Smith with a consistent 45% to 48% support. But Merkley has narrowed the gap over time, and any incumbent with less than 50% support is considered vulnerable. (Rasmussen Reports, June 13, 2008)

Most political commentators rate Senator Smith’s reelection chances this year as tough, but there is one critical area in which Smith leads his Democratic opponent by a wide margin – campaign cash. In a close race, money makes a significant difference. The most recent information on campaign contributions on file with the Federal Election Commission show Gordon Smith has raised over $9 million, and he had almost $4.9 million cash on hand. His opponent, Jeff Merkley, had raised $1.8 million but had only $151,000 on hand. (Center for Responsive Politics – Open Secrets.)

Congressional Quarterly, the nonpartisan publisher which closely follows the activities of Congress, ranks the Oregon Senate race as “leans Republican” (on a seven-point scale that ranges from safe Republican, likely Republican, leans Republican, no clear favorite, leans Democratic, likely Democratic, to safe Democratic) (CQ Politics – Senate Ratings.). The Rothenberg Political Report, which uses a slightly different political rating scale, classes the Oregon Senate race “Narrow Advantage for Incumbent Party,” which gives Smith a narrow edge. (Rothenberg Political Report – Senate.) The Cook Political Report calls this race a “toss-up” (Cook Political Report – Senate Race Ratings).

Comments

  1. This is great. Thank you.

  2. I regretted watching some who share my opposition to Sen. Smith’s re-election as they launched a knee-jerk reaction to his comments at the CAP forum. I thought his initial remarks should have been applauded by all fair-minded Americans, and I was sorry to see him beat a hasty retreat with his apology. He should have challenged those who questioned his comparison to explain why they thought he’d got it wrong. He hadn’t … and the folks chortling at his expense are the type who’ve not bothered to think through their own prejudices when it comes to thinking about “marriage” …

    “In Romer v. Evans (1996), the U.S. Supreme Court recognized that laws that infringed on political participation by gays could offend the Equal Protection Clause. In dissent from the opinion in Romer, Justice Scalia wrote that there was nothing unconstitutional about antigay discrimination because the Supreme Court, in Davis v. Beason (1890) ruled that Idaho acted constitutionally by depriving polygamists of the right to vote.

    In doing so, Scalia made a conservative rhetorical move against expanding rights by equating a left-wing sexual minority against a right-wing sexual minority, so that each upon reading his argument would be offended at comparison to the other, and crawl back under the bed in silence while heterosexual, Protestant white men golf and drink whiskey, their womenfolk bake, and their sheep get nervous. A pox on all deviants, his dissent reads.

    But rights of sexual autonomy and protections of sexual minorities and gender differences are the new civil rights frontier in our society. While Gordon Smith’s views of these issues are not in step with justice, it is welcome that a conservative is saying out loud, albeit in his own electoral desperation in a liberal state and a liberal year, that oppression of sexual minorities is both an American tradition and offensive. We should single out Smith for praise for saying such a thing, rather than making fun of him or saying he’s babbling. He’s not.”

  3. Last Lemming says:

    Thanks. Despite his support for the constitutional amendment, Smith is one of three Republican senatorial candidates I will be rooting for this year. (Coleman in Minnesota and Collins in Maine being the other two).

  4. The comparison between Idaho and Nevada’s histories of electing LDS as senators is interesting. It’s been observed that in the recent presidential primaries, Senator Obama did best in states that either 1) had a large portion of black voters, or 2) had very few black voters. In other places where blacks were a significant, but not major, portion of the electorate, he didn’t do as well.

    I wonder if the difference between Idaho and Nevada is similiar for the LDS politicians. In Nevada, the LDS politicians just mix in with all the others, and the successful ones rise to high office now and then. In Idaho, there are so many LDS that they are a kind of minority faction and LDS politicians have trouble gathering support outside their faction.

  5. Consistently for the last two months there have been TV ads against Smith in Oregon. For someone who supposedly is well-funded, I have rarely seen any TV ads by or about him. Someone has been financing his opposition, since it appears to be very strong and well organized.

  6. That the percentage of Mormon senators exceeds the percentage of Mormons in the national population is not that surprising, since senators represent states, not the population as a whole. Thus a state with a small population, such as Utah, will have as many senators as one with a large population, such as California, and that will skew the numbers.

    Arizona and Idaho are interesting, probably for the reasons that John Mansfield suggests–there are enough Mormons there that the religious divide plays large in political races. So, Arizona has one Mormon in congress (Jeff Flake–who represents Mesa, Gilbert, etc.). The one Mormon governor (Mecham) was such an ass that there may never be another, although Matt Salmon came very close.

    Still, if there is a President McCain next year, it will be interesting to see who is appointed to fill his seat (Arizona law requires the governor to appoint a member of the resigning senator’s party) and who will run in 2010 for his senate seat. So, a McCain victory might mean another Mormon in the Senate.

  7. Gordon Smith’s name sounds so familiar, though I don’t follow Oregon politics at all. didn’t he come out recently in support of some of Senator Obama’s policy ideas?

    Maybe I’m thinking of someone else.

  8. Given the tight scenario you have laid out, I was surprised to see that the odds are 66 for Smith and 35 for Merkley on Intrade, the futures trading site that lets people put real money on political outcomes. Smith appears to have surged strongly in the last few weeks as one might expect given McCain’s strong showing as of late.

  9. jjohnsen–you are correct, Smith came out with TV ads featuring photos of Obama juxtaposed with pictures of himself, and touting unity with Obama on various things. The ad did not mention his party (R). He was basically trying to ride the coattails of the other party’s nominee, which is an interesting strategy but one that understandably angered Dems in the state.

    This is an interesting race to watch. Although I always like to see more Dems in the Senate, I like Smith a lot.

  10. Senator Gordon Smith and the Polygamy Comment. I was interested in Mark B.’s thoughtful observations about Senator Smith and the polygamy/gay marriage flap that was mentioned in part I of my blog contribution. I agree in particular with your closing comment:

    We should single out Smith for praise for saying such a thing, rather than making fun of him or saying he’s babbling. He’s not.

    The principal reason I mentioned this particular exchange was because it is one of the few occasions when Smith’s Mormon religion came up during the campaign. There has been a lot of similar campaign back-and-forth that is equally silly, and that has more to do with some of the seamier aspects of political campaigns.

    Smith was participating in a discussion of gay marriage and gay rights at the Center for American Progress in Washington – a very liberal and very Democratic (with a capital D) think tank. Also participating in the discussion was Congresswoman Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisconsin), who is an openly gay Member of Congress. This is the kind of event that most Mormon Members of Congress would avoid at all costs, but Smith was there as a willing and thoughtful participant.

    Look at his comments on You Tube (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kiab0khdOcQ ) and it gives you a much better flavor of the occasion.

  11. #7 — Gordon & Smith (G&S) was a premium skateboard manufacturer when I was a teenager. Maybe you’re just channeling your inner rebel.

    (But remember, skateboarding is not a crime)

  12. To: Bob King,
    You have provided us with some useful statistics about Mormons in the various states. I would like to read more about that, if you could provide us with the source that you used. You wrote a very informative blog. Thank you.

  13. Senator Gordon Smith and the Polygamy Comment. I was interested in Mark B.’s thoughtful observations about Senator Smith and the polygamy/gay marriage flap that was mentioned in part I of my blog contribution. I agree in particular with your closing comment: “We should single out Smith for praise for saying such a thing, rather than making fun of him or saying he’s babbling. He’s not.”

    The reason I mentioned this particular exchange was because it is one of the few occasions when Smith’s religion came up during the campaign. There has been a lot of similar campaign back-and-forth that is equally silly, but that has more to do with some of the seamier aspects of political campaigns.

    When this comment was made, Smith was participating in a discussion of gay marriage and gay rights at the Center for American Progress in Washington – a very liberal and very Democratic (with a capital D) think tank. Also participating in the discussion was Congresswoman Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisconsin), who is an openly gay Member of Congress. This is the kind of event that most Mormon Members of Congress would avoid at all costs, but Smith was there as a willing and thoughtful participant.

    Look at his comments on You Tube (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kiab0khdOcQ ) and it gives you a much better flavor of the occasion and the context for the Senator’s remarks.

  14. Mormon Congressional representatives from Idaho, Nevada, Arizona. John Mansfield and Mark B. raised some interesting questions about significant differences in LDS senators and representatives from Idaho and Nevada. I don’t want to go into a lot of details here on this topic because in Part III and IV of my the blog (keep an eye out for these sections in a few days), I do spend a bit of time talking about Mormon Members of Congress from Idaho, Nevada and Arizona.

    I agree with John that Idaho is a particularly unusual case because until 1951, not one LDS congressman was elected from Idaho, despite the fact that Idaho has a 27% Mormon population. Idaho’s first Mormon senator was not elected until 1988. In addition to the size of the Mormon population in Idaho (big enough to threaten non-Mormons but not big enough, as in Utah, to overwhelm them), I think the tempestuous history of Mormon – Non Mormon relations Idaho was an important factor. The best book on that topic is Merle W. Wells, Anti-Mormonism in Idaho, 1872-92 (BYU Press, ca. 1978). The book covers only the 20 years of the most intense anti-Mormonism which coincided with the strongest anti-Polygamy conflict between the Federal government and the Church in Utah, but that bitter fight says much about the reason why it took so long for Mormons to find a place in Idaho politics, at least at the national level.

    One of Idaho’s prominent early political leaders – Fred Dubois – began his political career as sheriff for the territory of Idaho and made his political reputation by leading a major effort to disenfranchise Mormon voters in Idaho on charges that they were exercising undue influence, though the excuse he used was polygamy. Later as Idaho’s territorial delegate and then as its U.S. Senator for two terms, Dubois continued his anti-Mormon crusade. He was the most outspoken opponent of seating Utah Senator and LDS Apostle Reed Smoot in the U.S. Senate (1903-1906). See a summary of Dubois’ career: Fred T. Dubois – Biographical Sketch. (http://www.isu.edu/library/special/mc004b.htm )

    For me the interesting question is why there have been three Mormon Senators and four House members (two of whom were also Senators) from Nevada, four Mormon representatives in Congress from Arizona, and one from New Mexico – but none from Wyoming. According to the Church Almanac, after Utah and Idaho the state with the highest proportion of Mormons is Wyoming with 11%. Nevada has 7%, Arizona 6%, and New Mexico 3%. Wyoming has never elected a Mormon to Congress. (In the interest of full disclosure, I was born and grew up in Wyoming.)

    Part of the problem in Idaho and in Wyoming may be that Mormons are still largely in the Mormon ghettos – the Mormon settlements of the late 19th and early 20th centuries such as Star Valley, the Big Horn Basin, and Uintah and Sweetwater Counties. The Mormon settlements in Nevada and Arizona are still heavily LDS, but significant numbers of Mormons (both within the state and from Utah and Idaho) have moved to Las Vegas and Phoenix, which over the last half century have grown enormously. Mormons in these urban areas are more integrated and non-Mormons have become better acquainted with LDS. Wyoming has had no such major urban center, and the Latter-day Saints are still concentrated in a few areas, with stronger links to Utah and Idaho than to the rest of the state.

  15. mormonhermitmom says:

    I had just done a search of which senators were LDS and came up with this blog. My goodness, I live in Oregon and had no clue that Gordon Smith was LDS. His religion never comes up in the campaign ads, either for or against. I do hear a lot of negative campaign ads against him on the radio. He’s painted as rich, catering to the oil companies, voting with Bush a lot, etc. The ads against his opponent are also very negative. I really don’t know what to think of him. None of the election ads mention party affiliation up here. You’d think the democrats would want to point out they are not Bush’s party a little more.

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