Campaigning on a (right) wing and a prayer

In 1998, a Promise Keepers website included some anti-Mormon commentary. When word of that spread, it took away traditionally conservative Mormon votes from the Promise Keepers member running for the U.S. Senate—Republican John Ensign—and helped Democrat Harry Reid, a Mormon, squeak to a third term.

Two elections later, Reid now faces Sharron Angle, a devout Baptist. When Mitt Romney, a Utah Mormon, ran for president, some Baptist leaders tied themselves in knots over how to view him, with descriptions of his church ranging from a major non-Christian faith to “a cult.”

Nothing clears out a dull party faster than discussing religion or politics; in tandem, they can end a party before it starts. That would make inviting Angle risky, since she accused Reid of violating the First Commandment by trying to make government an object of idolatry while also claiming God has a plan for her to run for the Senate.

Setting aside whether God wants the elderly, the disabled and Angle’s husband to starve by dismantling federal agencies that help His children, Angle’s professed religiosity creates an interesting problem for her, her party and Nevada voters.

George Will once explained George W. Bush’s major political accomplishment as balancing socially conservative Republicans with libertarian conservative Republicans. Does Angle risk losing support from libertarian conservatives for being socially conservative?

Like most Westerners, Nevadans long have considered themselves libertarian and their region a colony of the eastern U.S. They still resent how much of their land is under federal control. Whatever one thinks of their solution, it’s rooted in the idea of limited government.

Yet Nevada has changed. In the 1930s, it legalized gambling, eased residency requirements for divorce and drank its way through Prohibition. The leading opponents of Nevada veering toward sin were religious groups, which state officials duly ignored. Then more than now, gambling was an evil, but Nevada’s economic need and desire to be left alone—a central libertarian tenet, right?—triumphed.

With growth has come an ironic change: Northern and rural Nevadans often gnash their teeth over Southern Nevadans, but they are much closer ideologically to casino workers than they are to many more recent arrivals to the state. The Nevadans who rejected legalization of marijuana and banned gay marriage in the early 2000s included many supposed libertarians, but social conservatives drove the bandwagon.

Throughout, a key factor in Nevada politics has been the Mormon Church, once excoriated as sinful and libidinous, now a conservative bulwark. Three Mormons from Nevada have served in the Senate: Berkeley Bunker, appointed in 1940, defeated for a full term in ’42, and later elected statewide to the House; Howard Cannon, who served four terms starting in 1959 before his defeat in 1982; and Reid—all Democrats, interestingly.

Mormons have become increasingly Republican as the party has both benefited and suffered since the late 1970s from the rise of the religious right, which has been more closely tied to Christian fundamentalists. When Nevada went wild for Ronald Reagan, those connections had far less appeal than his Westernness and anti-government views.

Consider Steve Wark. In 1988, he made his name running the Nevada presidential campaign of evangelical Christian Pat Robertson, winning a majority of national convention delegates for him and becoming party chairman. In 1990 and 1992, Wark nearly won Assembly races against Chris Giunchigliani, now a county commissioner, in a traditionally Democratic district.

Since then, Wark has been a highly respected Republican operative, known for solid work on several campaigns. This year, he worked on the gubernatorial campaign of former North Las Vegas Mayor Michael Montandon, a Mormon who campaigned as an overt social conservative in the primary. Montandon ran far behind moral exemplar Jim Gibbons in losing to Brian Sandoval.

If Sandoval becomes governor, it probably won’t be due to religion. If Angle defeats Reid, it could be because of religion but more likely in spite of it. And an Angle victory would threaten religion; it could even create a lot of atheists.

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