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).