Mesa's once politically powerful Mormon voting base may be edged out on March 11 by the city's fast-growing and diverse population and the phenomenon of early voting, political experts and church leaders say.
With the mayor's spot and four other council seats open, the election is expected to draw a higher-than-normal number of voters, and the large numbers could dilute the Mormon factor even more.
This year, the city's election dynamics already show signs of shifting dramatically.
Some 61,761 voters have asked for early ballots - about one third of those registered to vote in the election, according to city election officials - and more than 26,000 ballots already have been returned. The 2004 election had a 20 percent voter turnout rate.
Candidates can now target voters who are casting early ballots by gathering voter lists, calling them and prodding them to vote. An increased turnout rate tends to dilute a particular power bloc.
In Mesa, the most reliable voting bloc has been that of the civic-minded Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, said Bruce Merrill, an Arizona State University journalism professor and political analyst.
"With the core votes, virtually 100 percent have lived in the city for quite some time," he said. "Mormons have been there for quite some time."
About 10 percent of Mesa's population is Mormon, city officials say.
A low voter turnout signals that only the city's core voters participated in the election, Merrill said.
Nearly a third of the early votes so far have come from the eastern two districts, where Rex Griswold owns a business and where he has been a council member for five years.
Bob Grossfeld, a political consultant with Media Guys, said that the absentee phenomenon is the "wild card" in Arizona politics. A high voter turnout has the potential to dilute Mesa's core Mormon group of voters, he said.
"I think there is the possibility of a greater than 20 percent turnout," he said. "If it happens, it will be because of the permanent vote-by-mail list. The choice will be in front of more voters than have ever been considered before."
The Mormon factor has created a particular buzz in this year's mayoral race, in which two candidates - Claudia Walters and Scott Smith - are Mormon. Rex Griswold is a member of the Red Mountain Community Church, a Protestant congregation in east Mesa.
Campaign signs for Walters and Smith clutter the grounds surrounding the prominent Mesa Arizona Temple at South LeSueur and Main Street.
But Griswold said that when he posted a red, white and blue banner near the temple about a month ago, he was asked by a property owner to remove it.
Don Evans, CEO of Banner Baywood Medical Center, serves as the president of the Mormons' Mountain View Stake. He said it would be naive to believe that Mesa's voters don't know the religious affiliations of the mayoral candidates.
"I think that people are very aware," he said. "I think that people going to the polls know that two of the people are LDS. They know that."
Evans, who says he is publicly neutral in the election because of his station in the church, thinks that there is a powerful connection between the spiritual beliefs of voters and the mayoral candidates.
"I presume that the majority will vote for (Walters and Smith)," he said. "The (church) places a strong emphasis on family and family values."
Evans noted that such loyalty could lead to the vote being split between the two Mormon candidates, leaving Griswold and one of the Mormons in a runoff.
Arlene Bateman, 81, a member of the LDS church, has such deep community roots in Mesa that she taught Smith in an English class at Westwood High School and has conversed with Walters at community events over the decades.
The religious factor is definitely "in play," Bateman said.
So far, she has only considered the LDS candidates, she said.
"I am a little torn, because I am very much connected to Claudia Walters and respect her work on the council," she said.
Smith, she said, presents "a fresh face versus experience.
"I have faith in him."
Still, others who watch the political scene say the city's practical issues trump religious affiliations. Don Stapley, a longtime Maricopa County supervisor in a district that covers parts of Mesa, supports Smith in the race. Stapley is also a member of the LDS church, but says Mesa's budget issues, its struggles to remain fiscally solvent and a widening $16 million budget gap are the more pressing concerns.
"I do think it's about leadership, and I don't think a person's religion gives them leadership qualities," he said.