Mormons in the Next Congress–Part III

This is part of a series of guest posts by Bob King.

Part I
Part II

Part III – House of Representatives: Utah and Southeastern Idaho: One Change of Face but Still All Mormon

Currently of the 11 Latter-day Saints serving in the U.S. House of Representatives, four come from the Mormon heartland – Utah and southern Idaho. All three of Utah’s current congressmen are members of the Church. Since Utah’s population is 72% Mormon, that comes as little surprise. Idaho has the second highest percentage of Latter-day Saints with 27% of the state’s population members of the Church. Mormons in Idaho, however are much more heavily concentrated in the southeastern part of the state, while northern Idaho has a much smaller proportion of Mormons. Idaho has two representatives in Congress. The 2nd congressional district, which includes portions of the state from the outskirts of Boise east to the Wyoming border, is heavily Mormon. The 2nd congressional district has been represented by a member of the Church for the last 58 years.

The congressmen for the Mormon heartland will all remain Mormon, however there will be a new face. Two of Utah’s three current representatives will be on the ballot in November, and all contenders for the third seat are Church members. Southeast Idaho’s LDS representative is also expected to be reelected handily. The political make-up of the four seats is expected to remain the same – Utah is expected to have two Republican and one Democratic representatives, and Idaho is expected to reelect its Republican congressman.

The longest serving Utah representative in the House is Chris Cannon (R-Utah 3rd District), who was elected to congress in 1996, but who will not be on the ballot in November this year because he lost the Republican primary in June.

The Cannon Family Political Dynasty

Cannon is a member of the Utah Cannon family which has played an important role in congressional politics since Utah was a territory. Four members of the family have served in the United States Congress. George Q. Cannon – Chris Cannon’s great grandfather, an apostle and member of the First Presidency, and a nephew of Church president John Taylor – was Utah territorial delegate from 1872 to 1882. Although he was reelected by a heavy majority of voters in 1882, the House of Representatives voted not to seat him because of the bourgeoning political conflict between the Church and the Federal government over the practice of polygamy. (Congressional biography of George Quayle Cannon; New York Times obituary of George Q. Cannon.)

Although George Q. caucused with the Democrats as territorial delegate in the U.S. House of Representatives, he was instrumental in the organization of the Republican party in Utah in the early 1890s. Before that time Church members supported the People’s Party while non-Mormons in Utah supported for the Liberal Party. In national politics the People’s Party affiliated with the Democratic Party and the Liberals associated with the Republicans. Before 1890, Mormons were overwhelmingly Democratic.

George Q.’s son (and Chris Cannon’s great uncle) Frank Jenne Cannon was elected Utah’s last territorial delegate serving from March 1895 to January 1896 when Utah was admitted to the Union. Frank Cannon served as Utah’s first Senator (1896-1899). When Cannon’s Senate term expired, the Church supported a Roman Catholic candidate for Senate, although Frank’s father George Q. was a member of the First Presidency at the time. When Cannon’s term expired, the Utah legislature did not vote to return him to the Senate, but the Senate contest was so contentious that Utah was without one of its senators for nearly two years. (This was at the time that U.S. Senators were still elected by the state legislatures.) Although he was one of the organizers of the Republican Party in Utah and served in the Senate as a Republican, Frank Cannon became a Democrat in 1900. He began a national campaign against the Church and its political influence in Utah and was ultimately excommunicated. (Congressional biography of Frank Jenne Cannon; Utah Historical Encyclopedia on Frank J. Cannon.)

Another Cannon family member in Congress was Howard Cannon (D-Nevada), who served twenty-four years (1959-1983) in the US Senate. He was born in St. George, Utah, the grandson of David H. Cannon, an early pioneer in southern Utah, and the brother of George Q. A more distant relative, but still part of the family. (Congressional biography of Howard Walter Cannon.)

Utah’s 3rd Congressional District

Chris Cannon represents a congressional district that has been called “the reddest of the red” because in the 2000 and 2004 elections, it gave one of the highest percentages of the vote in the country to George W. Bush (75% in 2000 and 77% in 2004). Reflecting his district, Cannon has been consistently conservative. The American Conservative Union has given him ratings of 90 to 100 percent. In 1998, he was one of the thirteen members of the House Judiciary Committee chosen to manage the presentation of articles of impeachment against President Bill Clinton before the U.S. Senate. In most parts of the country, he might be in trouble for being too conservative – but not in Utah’s 3rd district.

Cannon has faced serious primary competition in the past three election cycles from candidates who have attacked him for not being sufficiently conservative. In the 2004 Republican primary, he faced Matt Throckmorton in a campaign dominated by the issue of immigration. Cannon was criticized for not being tough enough against illegal immigration. Although his primary opponent raised $84,000 and his Democratic general election opponent raised less than $35,000 compared to Cannon’s expenditures of over $600,000, Cannon won the primary with only 58% of the vote and in the general election he received 63% of the vote, compared with 77% for George W. Bush in that district.

In the 2006 Republican primary Cannon again faced an opponent who focused on immigration policy. Outside anti-immigrant groups spent heavily against Cannon in the race. (CNN report on the 2006 Primary.) Cannon won the Republican primary with less than 56% of the vote. Again he won the general election, this time with less than 58% of the vote. In that campaign cycle, Cannon spent over $1.1 million, almost twice as much as all of his primary and general election opponents. (OpenSecrets – 2006 Election Cycle.)

The 2008 Cannon-Chaffetz Primary Contest

In 2008, Chris Cannon’s luck ran out. At the Utah Republican convention in May 2008, Jason Chaffetz, former chief of staff to Utah Governor Jon Huntsman and David Leavitt, brother of former Utah Governor and current U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Mike Leavitt, ran against Cannon for the 3rd Congressional District seat. Under Utah political rules, the convention picks the Republican candidate for an office if 60% of convention delegates support one candidate. When David Leavitt came in third in the convention voting, he threw his support to incumbent Cannon and on the final convention vote, Chaffetz defeated Cannon but with only 59% of the vote. Since Chaffetz did not receive 60% of the vote, under Utah Republican Party rules, the two top candidates faced each other in the Republican primary. (“Chaffetz has a shot at defeating Cannon,” Deseret News, May 18, 2008.)

Again illegal immigration was the key issue of the campaign against Cannon, and he was attacked for not being conservative enough. In the June 24 primary election Chaffetz defeated Cannon by a vote of 60% to 40%. (“Chaffetz wins big,” Deseret News, June 25, 2008.) Cannon had the endorsement of the President of the United States, who is still remarkably popular in the 3rd congressional district despite his plummeting approval ratings elsewhere in the country. Cannon also had the endorsements of Utah’s two senators – Orrin Hatch and Robert R. Bennett. Furthermore, Cannon spent over $800 thousand dollars while Chaffetz spent only $200 thousand in the primary. (Open Secrets – 2008 Election Cycle.)

Although after the November election Chris Cannon will no longer represent Utah’s 3rd district, a Church member will still hold that seat. (Since 1951, the state of Utah has elected only one non-Mormon to the House of Representatives, and that was for a single two-year term.) Jason Chaffetz is a convert to the Church. He attended Brigham Young University, where he was place kicker for the football team, and he joined the Church while a student. After college, Chaffetz worked for Nu Skin International in Provo. In 2004 he was campaign manager for Jon Huntsman’s successful gubernatorial election, and he served as Huntsman’s chief of staff for the first 10 months of his term. Chaffetz left to establish his own corporate communications and marketing consulting firm.

There seems to be little standing in the way of Chaffetz taking the 3rd congressional district seat. He is a double convert – and Mormons love converts. Not only did he join the Church, he converted to the Republican from the Democratic Party. Chaffetz’s father was married briefly to Katherine “Kitty” Dickerson. She subsequently married Michael Dukakis who later became Massachusetts governor and was the Democratic presidential candidate in 1988. As an undergraduate at BYU, Jason Chaffetz was a Utah co-chair of the Michael Dukakis presidential campaign. (“Utah GOP Rep. Cannon Defeated in Primary,” CQ Today Online News, June 25, 2008.) Polidata, a political data analysis organization, ranks Utah’s 3rd congressional district as the most Republican district in the United States (Cook Political Report – Utah 3rd District) It is hard to see how Chaffetz will not win by a landslide in November.

Utah’s Two Other Congressional Seats

The only Democratic representative in Congress from the state of Utah is Jim Matheson (D-Utah 2nd District). First elected in 2000, Matheson longevity in Congress has been surprising. The 2nd congressional district initially was entirely in Salt Lake County, and Matheson ran after Republican Merrill Cook, who had a reputation for being erratic and inconsistent, was defeated in the party’s primary. Matheson won with 56% of the vote.

Before the 2002 election, the state legislature redrew the boundaries of Utah’s three congressional districts to deal with population shifts shown in the 2000 U.S. census. It was done, however, in a thinly veiled way to eliminate Matheson. The clusters of Democratic voters in Salt Lake County were divided so that each of the three congressional districts had a segment of the urban county, and Matheson’s district included a much smaller segment of Salt Lake County plus the southeast half of the state, which is heavily rural and heavily Republican.

Matheson, however, won reelection in 2002 but with only 49% of the vote. Since that time, however, his winning margin has steadily increased. In 2004 he received nearly 55% of the vote and in 2006 he received 59%. This is despite the fact that his district gave George W. Bush 66% of the vote in 2004.

Matheson has been able to maintain his position by taking a very conservative position on most issues that represent the views of his constituents. He is one of the Democratic House members who least often votes with the majority of his party. The Deseret News concluded in a story on his voting record that “Matheson is far enough to the right for Utahns.” (Deseret News, August 25, 2006.) Matheson also has the benefit of good family political links. His father, Scott Matheson, was a popular two-term Utah Governor (1977-1985), and the family is a prominent in Utah politics. Congressional Quarterly’s House race ratings for 2008 considers Matheson’s district “safe Democrat.” (Congressional Quarterly House Race Ratings.)

Utah’s newest congressional representative is Rob Bishop (R-Utah 1st District), who has been in Congress since 2003. He was a high school teacher of American history and government, but he was also active in politics. He was elected to eight terms in the Utah state House of Representatives (1979-1995), serving as Speaker for his last term. He has won his last three congressional elections with 61% to 68%, and there is no expectation that the 2008 election will have a different result.

Bishop, like most Republicans, lost influence when Democrats took control of the House of Representatives in 2006. In his second term in Congress, Bishop was appointed to serve on the House Rules Committee, a particularly prestigious and important position for a junior member of Congress. When Democrats took control of the House of Representatives in 2006, Republicans lost five seats on the Rules committee, and Bishop, had to give up his position. He became a member of the Armed Services, Natural Resources, and Education and Labor committees. (Wikipedia: Rob Bishop.)

Mike Simpson of Idaho

Idaho is the state with the second largest percentage of Latter-day Saints. Southeastern Idaho was settled largely by Mormons from Utah, who began establishing Mormon communities in the early 1860s. Today over 385,000 Mormons make up 27% of the population of Idaho. Some have argued that the Mormon population provided necessary numbers that led to Idaho statehood in 1890, and vehement anti-Mormon political sentiment provided the glue that brought the non-Mormons of northern and southern Idaho together (“What if the Mormons hadn’t Come to Idaho,” Outlook [Alumni Magazine of Idaho State University], Winter 1989).

Idaho might not have achieved statehood without Mormon numbers, but intense anti-Mormon sentiment kept Mormons politically marginalized in Idaho until well into the 20th century. It was not until 1951 that the first Latter-day Saint was elected to the House of Representatives from Idaho, but since 1951 every congressman representing the congressional district that includes southeastern Idaho has been a Church member.

Idaho’s current Mormon congressman is Mike Simpson (R-Idaho 2nd District), who was first elected to Congress in 1998 in a contest that pitted a Republican Mormon, Simpson, against a Democratic Mormon, Richard Stallings, who had previously served six years from 1985-1993 as southeast Idaho’s representative in Congress (Official Biography of Richard Howard Stallings.) Stallings gave up his House seat in an unsuccessful bid for an Idaho senate seat in the 1992 election.

Simpson reflects the political conservatism of Idaho, which vies with Utah and Wyoming as the “reddest” state. His voting record has been solidly conservative, although he has been pragmatic on a number of issues. Before election to Congress, Simpson was a dentist in Blackfoot, Idaho, and he served 14 years in the Idaho state House of Representatives, the last six years as Speaker. When Republicans were in control of the U.S. House of Representatives before 2007, Simpson was frequently called upon to serve as “Speaker Pro Tempore” of the House when particularly difficult legislation was under consideration because of his ability to maintain order and decorum. (Wikipedia: Mike Simpson.)

Simpson’s first race in 1998 was close – he won with 53% of the vote. Since that time, however, he has won with well over 60% of the vote in each general election. His seat is classed as “safe Republican.” (Congressional Quarterly House Race Ratings.)


  1. The Cannon case is incredibly interesting to me. Incumbents almost never lose, and losing in a primary is even more unusual. Usually folks have to be Zell Miller level of apostasy from their party before it can happen. By all accounts, Cannon was very conservative. It all came down to the issue of immigration. But here is the irony and the interesting part to me–the church has been vocally in favor of moderate immigration policy, and even made noises about it during Cannon’s primary battle. So members of the church in that district proactively did something that is almost unheard of, over an issue in which they were at odds with the church.

  2. Before concluding that Utah County and the rest of the 3rd District ignored signals from the Church about moderation in immigration matters, it would be more accurate to conclude that they ignored specific injunctions from the Church to vote.

    Newspaper articles after the election were uniform in reporting low turnout–a piece by Jay Evensen in the Deseret News said that “less [sic] than 10% of registered voters” cast ballots in the 3rd district race. [Doesn’t anybody know the difference between “less” and “fewer” anymore???] Uber-Mormon (and Uber-Republican) Utah County had fewer than 21,000 voters show up that day.

    Extremism in defense of liberty may not have helped Barry Goldwater, but extremism in opposition to poor Spanish-speaking immigrants doing the crappiest jobs in our nation for miserable wages (especially when put in such lofty terms as “protecting the border”) seems to have stirred up enough Neanderthals to defeat Cannon.

  3. FYI-
    I worked for Mike Simpson for 2 years (in his dental office; his uncle was my stake president, I dated his nephew, etc.) and I know the Simpson family very, very well.

    Dr. Mike’s pretty much inactive (unless things have changed in the last few years), and so if you are going to lump him in as a Mormon politician, please do so knowing he’s Mormon by baptism and heritage only, and not by action. I don’t know if that means anything about anything that’s been spoken, just thought I’d throw that out there. In fact, he wasn’t actively involved in the LDS church when he was first elected as far as I’m aware…

    P.S. Mike Simpson is one of the greatest people I’ve ever met –his inactivity in the church does not equate any degree of degredation to his character. I love the man! It was an honor to work with him.

  4. There used to be three Mormon Congressmen in California. Are they already gone? How about Arizona?

  5. Norm Shumway retired a few years back. I met him in Manhattan a few months ago, where he and his wife were serving a Public Affairs department mission. That’s one of those Californians.

  6. Then there’s John Doolittle, Shumway’s successor. He’s still there, but he’s running into difficulty because of the Jack Abramoff scandal.

  7. Re: Comments #4, #5, and #6 — John Mansfield and Mark B — You guys are just getting way ahead of me. Part V deals with California — John Doolittle, Wally Herger and Buck McKeon. The three Californian Mormons in Congress right now will shrink to no more than two after the next election — the smallest number in many years.

  8. #2 ““less [sic] than 10% of registered voters” cast ballots in the 3rd district race. [Doesn’t anybody know the difference between “less” and “fewer” anymore???]”

    LOLz, glad I’m not the only one who obsesses over that. Interesting stats on turnout. That is remarkably bad even compared to usual bad turnout in the US.

  9. Re: Comment #3 by Cheryl. Thank you for your comment about Congressman Mike Simpson. Your experience working with the Congressman when he was a practicing dentist was interesting to read. I had heard from others that he was not active in terms of Church attendance. In the discussion/comments to Part II of this series, we got into the question about active vs. inactive Mormons.

    No question that someone who is baptized and considers himself or herself a member of the Church should be counted as a member — the Church does for its own statistical purposes. The thing that is so nice to hear in your comments is that a Republican Member of Congress is inactive. The received wisdom is that the Democrats (or at least most) are inactive. It is nice to know that inactivity can be an equal-opportunity condition.

    He is a nice person. I have not had a lot of interaction with him in Washington, but as a Congressional staffer when the Republicans were in control of the House of Representatives, I have been on the floor of the House when foreign affairs legislation was being considered and there are few people who wield the gavel with the authority and experience that he demonstrated.

  10. Mark B.–I once horrified some poor grocery store checker with my rhapsody on their Express Lane sign which read (properly)”8 Items or Fewer.”

  11. Chris Cannon didn’t loose just on immigration. Some would like to think so. He lost because of the perception that he would vote for bills he didn’t support, because by doing so, he made the bills better, and by not responding to voter ideas and comments. Voters were tired of him being there, and anyone running against him, was given a chance. Voters felt like Jason Chaffetz was a better option.

    It is unfortunate that the press has focused on spin from La Raza and have forgotten that Jason’s opponent is writing a book as to why Jesus is a democrat and would vote for him.

  12. Chris Cannon’s defeat in the Republican Primary is a function of several elements, but not quite as simple as arc (Comment #11) suggests.

    There is an intense anti-incumbent fervor in the Utah Republican Party that frequently surprises outside observers. Earlier this week, the Salt Lake Tribune reported on a meeting between Senator Robert Bennett, the somewhat more conservative of Utah’s two U.S. Senators, and Utah County’s state legislators. The way he was treated would be considered shocking in most other states. (Paul Rolly, “Utah’s conservative legislators aren’t happy with their Washington brethren,” Salt Lake Tribune, September 27, 2008) In the past delegates to the Utah Republican Convention booed and jeered Utah’s U.S. Senator Orin Hatch and then-Utah Governor now U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Mike Leavitt when they entered the convention hall.

    The problem with the Republican Party in Utah — as well as with other political parties that overwhelmingly dominate the politics of their state — is that the party is increasingly dominated by ideological purists, not by pragmatic moderates. Since there is no real competition with the other political party in general elections and since only the most fervent partisans tend to vote in primaries, the party and its candidates are moved to the extremes.

  13. The party politicians, who want to play all their little political games, continue to label the grassroots as “ideological purists, not . . . pragmatic moderates” (comment #12). Their attitude is exemplified by Cannon when he labeled everyone that voted against him “boors” (crude; peasants). Their aristocratic, big-business, elitist attitudes run counter to the republican grass-roots.

    When they act like they are above the rules (Cannon and Leavitt at the recent convention) or act condescending (like Hatch listing all the pork he won for all us Utah peasants) then they don’t get a great reception and are liable to get booed.

    They loose respect from the party activists that are dedicated to the party platform and principles. When the grass-roots fail to show them the proper awe and reverence due the political aristocrats they label us “arch-conservatives” or “ideological purists.” There are some that fit that description but most of us are tired of showing respect to “leaders” that show no real respect to us.

    Chaffetz is the exception. He listens. He understands. He is truly committed to American principles not political aristocracy.

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