In this season so uncomfortable for many Republicans a new question may soon arise: What’s most important, party or philosophy?
On Tuesday, and then again possibly in November, we’ll get hard numbers on that, because what’s on the ballot will give Idaho’s Republicans, and their elected leaders, a choice.
Not in many, many years has a leading Republican candidate for president run so distant from what Idaho Republicans have for generations accepted as gospel: Less government, lower taxes, support business, oppose abortion, and so on. Reflection Reaganism, if you’re a Republican, and you’re golden.
In much of Idaho, there’s been a significant related factor: The close alliance between most members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, who account for about a third of the vote in Idaho and a much higher percentage of Republican voters, and orthodox Republicans. (The church itself takes no formal position on presidential or other political races.)
Enter now Donald Trump, the most probable Republican nominee for president and most significant Republican breaker of the mold since before Reagan.
He is not a reciter of the GOP mantra, not even close. He doesn’t see public policy through the small-government/lower-taxes lens. The main philosophy of Donald Trump’s campaign is Donald Trump, and even that changes from week to week. Mitt Romney, the 2012 Republican nominee who had overwhelming support in Idaho, remarked on Thursday, “There's plenty of evidence that Mr. Trump is a con man, a fake. Mr. Trump has changed his positions not just over the years, but over the course of the campaign, and on the Ku Klux Klan, daily for three days in a row.”
He also attached Trump to “the very brand of anger that has led other nations into the abyss”.
In saying so, Romney probably did not run afoul of many of his fellow churchgoers.
On Tuesday, Christopher Cunningham, the content director of LDS.net (a website not affiliated with the church but closely supportive of it) made what may be a powerful argument for church members. (You can read it at http://lds.net/blog/buzz/lds-news/donald-trump-opinion-on-mormons/) He described a 2014 interview of Trump by McKay Coppins: “Trump insisted that Mitt Romney lost because his faith was ‘alien.’ But as Trump’s thoughts on the Church turned negative, Coppins interrupted explaining that he was Mormon. Trump then changed his tune saying, ‘People don’t understand the Mormon thing. I do. I get it.’”
Cunningham also quoted a Trump spokesman, who was defending the candidate’s proposals to investigate and possibly close mosques, as adding (approvingly), “It’s no different than a Mormon Church. You’ve had the DOJ investigate Mormon Churches and shut them down.”
In all, Cunningham said, “the uncorrected hostility between Donald Trump and Mormons is unprecedented in modern presidential politics. You may have to go back to Grover Cleveland in 1889 to find similar anti-Mormon sentiment from a presidential campaign.”
Few well-known Idaho political figures have signed on with Trump and offered a favorable counter-message. One who has is Skip Brandt, an Idaho County commissioner (and former legislator), who wrote in a letter to the editor: “The stakes could not be higher. The politically correct socialists are about to destroy our country. Donald Trump is the common-sense conservative who can change Washington, D.C. Donald Trump has the establishment (Democrats and Republicans alike) scared to death. Why? Because Trump is a private sector businessman that is used to saying ‘You’re fired.’”
So what message will Idahoans back on Tuesday? Polling has shown Trump running strong in the Gem State, well positioned to win as he has in many other deeply red states.
To the extent he does, Idaho’s political analysts will have their work cut out parsing an Idaho electorate that maybe didn’t care – all along – about many of the things its political leaders have assumed it does. And then the follow-up question: What about November?