When Matt Salmon ran for governor five years ago, he recalls talking to Republican voters who liked his politics but refused to vote for him because he was Mormon.
One woman, he says, even told him he belonged to that “devil church.”
Salmon, who is a Republican, said that was a telling example of the anti-Mormon streak that exists in Arizona and across the county that could keep Mitt Romney from winning the GOP’s nomination for president this year.
Although Salmon stopped short of saying his faith cost him the 2002 gubernatorial race, he said Romney’s membership in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints could certainly work against him in Arizona as voters go the polls next year.
His opinion contradicts those of numerous high-ranking elected officials and political strategists who believe being Mormon is hardly the political liability here as it is back East.
“There are certain districts in the state, like Mesa, where it’s a non-issue,” Salmon said Friday afternoon. “But it certainly did play when I ran. Many people have told me that it cost me the election, and I think there’s some merit to that.”
During the 2002 Arizona gubernatorial race, Salmon’s opponents made a concerted effort to remind the public of his religious ties. One tactic involved attaching plaques to his campaign signs that read “Vote Mormon.”
In fact, Dick Mahoney, who ran as an independent, aired a political advertisement about the events then unfolding in Colorado City with polygamist Warren Jeffs. Although it wasn’t a direct attack on his Republican opponent, Salmon said it was yet another effort to show Mormonism in a bad light and thereby sink his candidacy.
Salmon, a former U.S. Congressman, warned Romney in 2005 that his faith would be a political liability throughout the nation as well as in Arizona, even though the state is home to one of the largest Mormon populations in the county.
“I told him a year-and-a-half ago that he would get creamed in the Bible Belt, that he would run into a buzz saw,” said Salmon, who at the time was chairman of the state Republican Party and met privately with Romney.
The issue of Romney’s faith has taken center stage this week in the world of presidential politics. Many Christians don’t think of Mormons as part of their faith because of doctrinal differences.
Romney, who is seeking to become the first Mormon to win his party’s nomination as well as the presidency, delivered what was billed as a major speech on religion to allay concerns about his Mormon faith.
The former governor for Massachusetts has watched leads evaporate in Iowa and New Hampshire as recent polls show resistance, especially among evangelical Christians, to voting for a Mormon candidate.
However, many political experts in Arizona said voters here are less suspicious of Mormon candidates because they are familiar with the religion.
Political pollster Jim Haynes, who works for the Behavior Research Center, said familiarity eliminates the worries in the minds of voters, unlike many people in eastern states who know little about the faith except for what they see on television.
High-profile court cases such as the one involving Jeffs compound those worries and help to conjure up a negative connotation with voters in areas where there are fewer Mormons. Jeffs, the leader of a religious group not affiliated with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, was recently convicted for being an accomplice to rape for forcing an underage girl to marry her cousin.
Latter-day Saints no longer practice polygamy and do not consider Jeffs or his followers to be part of their religion.
Meanwhile, longtime Republican politico Doug Cole pointed to the fact that voters here have consistently elected Mormon candidates to the highest offices in the state. In the 1980s, Evan Mecham was elected governor. And recently the positions of chief justice of the Arizona Supreme Court as well as the speaker of the Arizona House of Representatives and president of the Arizona Senate were held by Mormons.
“I think over the years, there were very few times that anyone wrote me any letters or made any comments about my religion,” said Mark Killian, former Arizona speaker of the house and a legislator from 1983 to 1996. “And I think during the impeachment with Gov. Mecham, there were a few negative things. But of course that whole thing was a zoo.”
Still, Salmon said it’s hard to measure Arizona voters’ resistance to electing a Mormon candidate because they don’t want to say they oppose a religion publicly.
“For all that talk, once they get into the voting booth, it’s a very private thing,” he said.
Tribune Writer Lawn Griffiths contributed to this report.