Mormons in the Next Congress–Part IV

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

Part I
Part II
Part III

Part IV – House of Representatives: Mormons in the Mountain West: Tough Reelection Race in Nevada; No Problem in Arizona; New Mexico to Lose its Mormon Congressman

Nevada, a state that is home to legalized gambling and other adult entertainment that is not generally associated with Latter-day Saints, has had a surprisingly strong and consistent Mormon political presence. Mormons number 170,000 in the state and make up just over 7% of the population. Yet three Church members have represented Nevada in the U.S. Senate – all of them Democrats. Nevada has also had four Latter-day Saints elected to the House of Representatives – two Democrats and two Republicans.

Mormon Senators and Congressman from Nevada

The first Mormon U.S. senator or representative ever to represent a state other than Utah was Berkeley Lloyd Bunker (D-Nevada) a gas station operator, state legislator, and bishop of the Las Vegas Ward, who was appointed to fill a vacancy in the U.S. Senate (1940-1942). He lost his campaign to be elected to the full Senate term, but he was subsequently elected to the House of Representatives (1945-1947). (Official Biography of Berkeley Lloyd Bunker.) The second LDS senator from Nevada and the second from a state other than Utah was Howard Walter Cannon (D-Nevada), who served 24 years (1959-1983). Cannon was born near St. George, Utah, but spent all of his adult life in Nevada. (Official Biography of Howard Walter Cannon.) The third Nevada senator is Harry Reid (D-Nevada) who has served in the Senate since 1987 and who has been the leader of the Senate since 2007.

The four Nevada Mormons who have served in the House of Representatives include two who served in the Senate: Berkeley Bunker (Senate: 1940-1942; House: 1945-1947) and Harry Reid (House: 1983-1987; Senate: 1987-present).

Is Governor Jim Gibbons a Mormon

The third LDS House member is James A. Gibbons (R-Nevada 2nd District) who served in Congress from 1997 to 2006 when he was elected Nevada’s governor. (Official Biography of James A. Gibbons). Gibbons Church membership has been somewhat controversial. His official biography for his two terms as a member of the Nevada state Assembly (1989-1993) listed him as “Protestant.” The standard reference biographies on members of Congress, updated every two years – Politics in America and the Almanac of American Politics – both listed his religious affiliation as “Protestant” in the 1998, 2000, and 2002 editions. Standard practice for such biographies is that the member of Congress provides information on religious affiliation and other personal data that is reported. After being listed as “Protestant” in 5 editions of these biographical reference volumes, Gibbons’ office informed the editors of Politics in America and the Almanac of American Politics that Gibbons was Mormon in 2003.

The change in Gibbons religious identification was sufficiently noteworthy that a major Las Vegas daily newspaper published a lengthy article discussing it (“Inaccuracy fixed: Gibbons mystified by incorrect listing: Books identified him as Protestant rather than Mormon” Las Vegas Review Journal, July 19, 2006). According to the newspaper, Gibbons said it was a mystery to him how he came to be listed as a Protestant and how the error remained part of his biography for so long. Gibbons was quoted as saying, “I’ve gone to a lot of different churches in my life, from Baptist to Episcopal to Presbyterian to LDS, but I have always considered myself LDS. . . I am not the most active individual in church, but I still hold my beliefs and I still believe in the doctrines and principles.” The newspaper article noted “At the time Gibbons’ religious affiliation was amended in the guidebooks in 2003, he was reportedly considering running for governor or for the U.S. Senate against incumbent Sen. Harry Reid, another Mormon.”

When determining what political figures are Church members, there is no standard listing of all Church members to check, because membership records are not public. When LDS statisticians come up with total membership numbers for the Church, they use the standard Church definition – someone who has been baptized and whose name has not been removed from the membership rolls at their request or because of disciplinary action. There is no effort to establish whether they have a temple recommend or whether they attend Church.

In establishing whether a public figure is Mormon, the only reasonable standard that applies is whether the individual is baptized and considers himself or herself a member. The definition of membership used by the Church would pick up at least one and perhaps other Members of Congress – individuals whose family were Church members, who were baptized when they were young and even ordained to the Aaronic Priesthood as teens, but who drifted away when they were older.

Dean Heller’s Reelection Battle

The fourth Nevada House member and the most recently elected Mormon from the state is Dean Heller (R-Nevada 2nd District). He was elected in 2006 to the Congressional seat vacated by Jim Gibbons, who did not seek reelection in order to run for governor. Nevada’s 2nd congressional district includes the entire state of Nevada with the exception of the city of Las Vegas and some of its immediate suburbs, which form the other two congressional districts in the state.

Heller served in the Nevada state Assembly (1991-1995) and was Nevada’s Secretary of State for 12 years (1995-2007). Born in the San Francisco Bay Area, he was raised in Carson City, Nevada, and attended the University of Southern California. He was a stock broker before beginning full-time public service, and he is a convert to the Church. (Dean Heller: Wikipedia.)

Heller’s race to fill Gibbons congressional seat involved a heated three-candidate Republican primary with Gibbons wife, Dawn, who was a member of the Nevada state Assembly (1999-2003), and Sharron Angle, also a member of the Nevada state Assembly (1999-2005). Heller squeaked through the primary with 35.9% of the vote to Angle’s 35.3%. The margin of victory was 421 votes. The general election was likewise a close contest. Heller’s Democratic opponent was Jill Derby, an educator with a Ph.D. in anthropology who served 18 years on the Board of Regents of Nevada’s state higher education system and was also a former state chair of the Nevada Democratic Party. Heller received 50.3% of the vote to Derby’s 44.9%.

The most vulnerable time for any member of Congress is the first reelection contest. The representative has not had much time to establish his or her reputation, and the individual is still not that well known by constituents. Heller is a freshman congressman in that vulnerable position. He is facing the same strong Democratic candidate who made a good showing against him in 2006. Jill Derby is running against Heller again in 2008, and it promises to be a tough contest.

Heller does have a number of advantages. Derby made a late decision to engage in the rematch, the district has been reliably Republican (Bush won 57% of the vote in 2000 and in 2004) and Jim Gibbons most recent electoral victories in the 2nd Congressional District were strong (57.2% in 2004 and 74.3% in 2002). Congressional Quarterly rates the race “Republican favored” (Congressional Quarterly 2008 Election Guide – Nevada 2nd District) and The Cook Political Report calls it “likely Republican,” (Cook Political Report – Nevada 2nd District), nevertheless, this is a contest to watch.

Arizona: Mormon Congressman Likely to be Reelected

Mormons established a permanent presence in the State of Arizona when Church settlements were established beginning in the 1870s. The Mormon presence continued to expand from natural growth of the settlements and families moving from Utah for economic opportunities. Recent Church statistics report over 355,000 Mormons in Arizona or 6.0% of the population. Latter-day Saints have been prominent in Arizona’s political life. Four Mormons have been elected to the House of Representatives from the state: Stewart Lee Udall (D-Arizona) served in Congress 1955 to 1961 when he was appointed Secretary of Interior by President John F. Kennedy (Congressional Biography of Stewart Lee Udall); his brother, Morris King Udall (D-Arizona) succeeded him and served 1961 to 1991 (Congressional Biography of Morris King Udall); Matt Salmon (R-Arizona) who served 1995 to 2001 and subsequently ran an unsuccessful campaign for governor of Arizona (Congressional Biography of Matthew James Salmon); and Jeff Flake (R-Arizona 6th District) who replaced Salmon in 2001 and is running for reelection again this year.

Flake’s district includes most of the eastern suburbs of Phoenix, including the towns of Mesa, Gilbert, and Chandler. The area includes a significant portion of the Latter-day Saints living in Arizona. Wikipedia remarks on Arizona’s 6th District: “A heavy Mormon population in Mesa and Gilbert and its suburban nature give this seat an unmistakable GOP flavor” (“Arizona’s Sixth Congressional District,” Wikipedia). Since the proportion of Mormon voters in the Republican primary is high, a Mormon candidate has an important edge in this congressional district.

Flake’s Arizona Mormon credentials are unassailable. He was born in Snowflake Arizona, one of the earliest Mormon settlements in the state which was named after Apostle Erastus Snow and Flake’s second great grandfather William Flake. He and his family live in Mesa, an early Mormon colony and site of the first temple in Arizona.

In Washington, Flake has earned a reputation as one of the most implacable foes of “earmarks,” pork barrel spending, and fiscal irresponsibility by Congress. He was the subject of a 60 Minutes segment on his crusade (See video excerpts on Flake’s campaign web site: He also has the reputation of being an independent voice. Almost alone among his colleagues, he called for Republican Leader Tom Delay to step down because of his ethical problems in early 2006.

But Flake has been more moderate in the immigration issue, supporting fellow Arizonan, Senator John McCain’s immigration proposal, which most Republicans (and now McCain as well) have rejected (OpEd by Congressman Flake, The Hill, April 25, 2007). Although Flake may not be popular with some of his colleagues in Congress and although he pledged to serve only three terms in Congress and is running for the fifth time, he seems to be doing fine with his Arizona constituents. He is expected to win handily in November.

No Mormon Replacement for New Mexico Mormon Congressman Seeking Senate Seat

New Mexico has had only one Mormon member of congress – Tom Udall, who has been a Member of the House of Representatives since 1999. He is giving up his seat to seek the Senate seat being vacated by retiring Senator Pete Domenici. (Udall’s personal and family background and his Senate race is discussed in Part II of this series.) As far as I have been able to determine none of the candidates for the open seats for New Mexico’s three congressional seats are Latter-day Saints. The bottom line – this will reduce by one the number of Mormons in the House of Representatives after the November 2008 election.


  1. John Mansfield says:

    Thanks for this series. Some may be interested to know that the Democratic challengers for Nevada’s 3rd Congressional District in 2002 and 2006 were Mormons. Tessa Hafen came just a little short last time, losing 46.6% to 48.5%. For more on that see “Jon Porter’s Next Challenger.”

    Also, from 1985 to 1995, Mormons held four of the seven seats on the county commission in Clark County, Nevada, southern Nevada’s most important governing body. Three of those Mormons were Democrats, and one was a Republican. See “Lame Ducks and the Las Vegas Temple.”

  2. John Mansfield’s two postings on The Millennial Star about Nevada and Mormon political influence there are particularly interesting. (See #1 above.) For some reason, Nevada has had an interesting history with Mormon political involvement. Unlike most other areas, LDS politicians in Nevada have tended to be relatively evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans. Most other areas in the Mountain West over the last half-century have seen a growing proportion of Mormon political leaders from the Republican Party while Mormon Democrats — at least Mormon Democrats who get elected — have continued to decline.

    Part of the reason may be the influence of two well-regarded LDS political leaders from Nevada — Berkley Bunker, the first Mormon in the U.S. Senate and in the House of Representatives from a state other than Utah. Bunker served in Congress in the 1940s, but he continued to play an important role in the Nevada Democratic Party long after that. The second prominent Mormon who has helped LDS Democrats in Nevada is Harry Reid, who has been a key figure in Nevada Democratic politics over the last three decades or longer. His leadership in the Democratic party has probably made it easier for Mormon Democrats there to find support in the Democratic political establishment.

    This does not mean that Church officials have been all that supportive of Congressman / Senator / Majority Leader Reid. When the Church News reported on the Groundbreaking for the Las Vegas temple — which took place November 30, 1985 — they included a photo of the Church leaders, led by Gordon B. Hinckley, First Counselor in the First Presidency, turning over the ceremonial first shovel of soil. Then-Congressman Harry Reid was prominently featured in the photo, but the caption of the Church News photo gave the name of every person in the picture — with the exception of Harry Reid, then a Nevada Congressman and the most senior LDS elected official in Nevada. They identified numerous non-Mormon local political leaders and numerous local Church officials. It looked to me like an intentional slight because of Reid’s prominent position in the photo and the fact that his name was pointedly omitted by the Church News.

  3. Great series. I loved the 60 Minute segment on Flake. He seems much more “maverick” than his fellow Arizonian politician.

  4. Then-Congressman Harry Reid was prominently featured in the photo, but the caption of the Church News photo gave the name of every person in the picture — with the exception of Harry Reid, then a Nevada Congressman and the most senior LDS elected official in Nevada.

    That’s pretty wacky.

  5. John Mansfield says:

    One extremely important Nevada Democrat was James I. Gibson. He was state senate majority leader from 1977 through 1985, minority leader in 1987, and died in 1988. He served in the LDS Church as a stake president and was called in 1973 as a regional representative.

    His son, James B. Gibson, is mayor of Henderson, Nevada’s second largest city. He ran for governor in 2006, but did not win the Democratic primary. Many complained that he is a DINO.

  6. John Mansfield says:

    Looking him up just now, I see James B. Gibson was named an Area Seventy at the last General Conference.

  7. I realize he doesn’t make it onto your Nevada list, but it’s worth noting the LDS connection of Rep. Jim Santani, Nevada’s sole member of the House, elected in the “Watergate” class of 1974. His name comes up against two of the men you mention: Santini lost the Democratic primary for US Senate to Howard Cannon in 1982. He later switched parties (as a Congressman, we’d now call him a “blue dog” Democrat) but lost in the 1986 U.S. Senate race to Harry Reid. Santini’s wife Ann comes from a notable Nevada LDS family and served many years (may still serve?) in the Church’s DC International Affairs office. Rep. Santini was very supportive of the Church activity of Ann and their children – in fact, I suspect that his LDS Church attendance during the years he and Howard Cannon were both in Congress was far more frequent than his Mormon colleague.

  8. It’s really interesting to me that so much of the discussion on these posts has been about whether these politicians are Mormon enough for us to claim them–I suspect that there was a time when Mormons would have been so thrilled to have anyone even nominally Mormon in Congress that questions about their degree of activity would have seemed far less salient. But I confess that’s just a hunch. Bob, what do you think? Are we more or less concerned about what kind of Mormons our Mormon politicians are than we were a generation or two ago?

  9. John Mansfield says:

    The only reason we are looking at these Congressman on this website, and not the other five hundred, is that they are Mormons. This that is what defines the group, so it is relevant to consider both who they are as politicians and who they are as Mormons. I’m getting a bit offended at the suggestion that there is something wrong with being interested to know that Politician A is inactive, and Politician B was a mission president or a faithful home teacher. Both may be fine people, but the political activity of Politician B says something about the Church that the activity of Politician A doesn’t.

  10. Mark Brown says:


    Senator (and apostle) Smoot often skipped church to do senate work on Sunday. Does it really matter that much to you?

  11. John Mansfield says:

    Mark, as a historical tidbit, I’m mildly interested. I’m not interested in innuendo regarding anyone living or dead. I don’t regard identifying someone as a non-participating Mormon to be innuendo, unless it some sort of veiled secret.

    If my interest is unseemly, then why is BCC hosting a four-part series (and counting) on Mormons in the Next Congress?

  12. Jrl (#7) Thanks for your comment. Yes, Jim Santini served as a Democratic representative of Nevada in Congress from 1975 to 1983. (Congressional Biographical Director: James David Santini; Honorable James D. Santini, Washington Legislative Counsel. ) His wife Ann still heads the Church’s International Affairs Office in Washington, D.C.

    The interesting twist is that a couple of years ago Jim Santini was baptized a member of the Church. He was not LDS while he was serving in Congress, but he is now.

    As you mentioned, Santini gave up his House seat to challenge Nevada’s Mormon Senator, Frank Cannon, in the 1982 Democratic Senate Primary. There was some unhappiness in the Nevada Democratic Party with Santini for taking on an incumbent Democratic Senator in the primary. Although 1982 was a good year for Democrats in Congress (Democrats had a net gain of 1 seat in the Senate and picked up 27 seats in the House of Representatives), Cannon lost his reelection bid. There were others who felt that in fact Cannon had lost his edge and should have retired and given an opportunity to a Democrat who could have won that race. It was after his Democratic primary loss in 1982 that Santini became a Republican.

    In 1986, Nevada Senator Paul Laxalt (Ronald Reagan’s favorite senator) decided not to run for reelection. In the race for the open seat, Santini ran as the Republican candidate against Democrat Harry Reid, who had been elected to the House of Representatives in 1982 and served two terms. It was a hard-fought race, but it was a good year for Democrats. Reid won the race with 50.0% of the vote to Santini’s 44.5%.

  13. Kristine (#8) Level of religious activity is difficult to measure. You don’t have to show temple recommend to identify yourself a Church member. The only measure we use for membership is baptism. If a person is baptized they are a Church member — even if they don’t attend or don’t follow all the teachings. When we count membership numbers in General Conference (listen in April Conference when the annual statistical report is given), we don’t break down totals to pull out temple recommend holders or full tithe payers or those who live the Word of Wisdom.

    The question is why single out this subset of Congress because they have identified themselves as Mormons. Many other organizations look at subsets of the Congress. How many women are currently serving? How many are African-American? How many are Hispanic? How many are Roman Catholic? Jewish? Presbyterian? Muslim? What does this say about these various groups? What does this say about the United States?

    Looking at how many members of Congress are also members a group that we identify with (LDS) is important to us as part of the effort to validate our group identity. For Mormons — because of our history of conflict with the federal government in the 19th century — it is a measure of our integration into American society. Members of our group serving in Congress validates our group identity, validates our American-ness.

    Looking at who are the Mormons who serve in Congress — which parties they represent, what parts of the country they represent — tells a good deal about the Church and its acceptance in the United States.

    Currently Jews make up 2.2% of the United States population, but 13% of the United States Senate are Jewish, and 30 members of the House of Representatives (7%) are Jewish. There is no state in the United States with a Jewish majority — New York state has the highest Jewish population and the highest proportion of Jewish citizens and it is less than 9% Jewish. But both of the senators from California and from Wisconsin are Jewish, and Jewish senators represent 11 states from Connecticut to California and from Minnesota to Florida.

    Mormons, on the other hand, are from Mormon country, the Mountain West. They represent, for the most part, only areas where LDS members are a significant portion of the population. Only one Mormon from east of Utah has served in the U.S. Senate (Paula Hawkins, R-FL, 1981-1987), and only two Mormons from east of New Mexico have served in the House (Richard Swett, D-NH, 1991-1995; Ernest Istook, R-OK, 1999-2007).

    It is not surprising in view of these numbers that Mitt Romney had a significant handicap in his Presidential race earlier this year. In a poll after poll in the long-presidential primary season over the last couple of years, Romney’s Mormonism repeatedly was cited as a reason some voters would not cast their ballot for him. That handicap turned out to be several percentage points in some places. The interesting and ironic element is that this was particularly true among Republican voters. Furthermore, despite the fact that politically conservative Mormons identify with Christian fundamentalists, this group of Republicans who were the most anti-Mormon.

  14. John,

    Sorry I wasn’t clear. I don’t think there’s anything unseemly about wondering about people’s activity–what I was wanting to get at was my hunch that having the luxury of wondering if someone is an active or “good” or “Jack” or whatever kind of Mormon is a new luxury for Mormons in historical terms. I also think that our boundary-maintenance issues may have shifted somewhat over time, and we’re probably a little more stringent now about our sense of what makes someone a good enough Mormon to call him/herself a Mormon politician. I think there was a time when we would have been thrilled to claim a Mormon of almost any stripe; nowadays there is enough Mormon representation that we can quibble about activity. I also think it’s interesting that we measure in terms of personal activity in the church rather than looking at whether we regard their policy decisions as consistent with Mormon principles. It seems to me that Catholics talk about both personal observance and policy positions, and I wonder if that represents another steps in terms of maturity as an accepted religious subgroup, or clearer articulation of “Catholic” policy positions…

    But I really don’t think there’s anything wrong with wondering about people’s activity in Church. (And I always look to see if Mitt’s at Stake Conference :))

  15. Bob (#12) thanks for the baptism news. I was on Santini’s staff for nearly 2 years, but haven’t looked him up on my trips back to DC. I should try next time ….