We're just plain problem solvers and we're civil and that's not true about (elected) Utah Republicans. Please give your Democratic candidates a second look. —Utah Democratic Party chairman Jim Dabakis
SALT LAKE CITY — Utah Democrats have been looking to expand their voter share in the state by offering moderate Mormons a political home. And party leaders and pollsters say the strategy appears to be working.
Utah Democratic Party chairman Jim Dabakis said two full-time organizers have been hired to reach out and assist members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Another group, the LDS Democrats Caucus, has also formed under the Utah Democratic Party umbrella with the mission of bridging the divide between those Utahns who are members of the church and those who are not.
"Most LDS Democrats have felt like they've had to stay in the closet about it," said Craig Janis, outreach co-chairman for the LDS Democrats.
Dabakis has actively appealed to LDS voters since becoming party chairman in 2011. He said the current climate in the Republican party, where tea party activists and other extreme factions are pressing their causes, is giving a number of voters pause to reconsider their political affiliations.
"LDS people are not extremists in nature," Dabakis said. "This extremism that has taken over the Republican Party, it makes a lot of LDS people extremely uncomfortable."
Utah Republican Party chairman Thomas Wright disagreed. He said the number of moderate delegates at this year's state Republican convention was evidence that middle-of-the-road voters were making their way to the GOP, partly in response to the European-style socialist policies endorsed by the Obama administration.
On the subject of LDS voters, Wright said individuals should not base party affiliation solely on religion and that being presented with strong political options was ultimately good for the state.
"I think it's terrific that both political parties are reaching out to a number of different people," Wright said.
The LDS Church continues to maintain political neutrality, telling its members that principles compatible with church teachings can be found in the platforms of both major political parties. In February, the church issued a statement that instructed church leaders to avoid scheduling meetings during party caucus meetings and encouraged church members to attend their precinct meetings.
Both parties saw increased attendance at caucus meetings and Dabakis said the number of LDS voters at Democratic precincts was "stunning."
Janis held an "LDS 101" training session with Democratic political candidates last week the day before the party's state convention. He presented an overview of church history and culture and gave tips on interacting with church members.
On a bullet list of things to do, he included "speak from the heart" and "express your perspective and let them express theirs (but don't hang around if they're crazy)." Four sister missionaries were also on hand to answer whatever church- and doctrine-related questions the candidates had.
Cimarron Chacon, who is running for the Utah House of Representatives, participated in the training session and said the material presented was invaluable.
"I just realized so many commonalities," she said.
Chacon, who was born Catholic but no longer attends church, said candidates were educated on passages of LDS scripture that are closely associated with topics on the Democratic plaform; such as education, health, self-sufficiency and care for the poor. She said they were given an extensive background on the church's worldwide humanitarian efforts and ran out of time to ask questions of LDS missionaries whom the party invited.
"We didn't get to utilize their expertise as much as people wanted to," she said.
Janis, who is LDS, often employs tactics that parody church culture, like buttons with the slogan "Choose the Left" or pass along cards that direct individuals to UtahCommonValues.org. On that website, designed by Janis' Fubeca Studio, LDS Democrats give testimonials akin to the LDS Church's "I'm a Mormon" campaign, explaining how their religion informs their political views.
He said any perceived similarities are meant to be light and fun, part of the LDS Democrats Caucus' goal of bringing Utahns together.
"An essential part of bridging that gap is showing that Mormons can make fun of ourselves," he said.
When asked what message he would like to give to LDS voters in Utah, Dabakis said Utah's Democrats are not like Washington politicians. Utahns have their own style of solution-oriented, reasonable governing.
"We're just plain problem solvers and we're civil and that's not true about (elected) Utah Republicans," he said. "Please give your Democratic candidates a second look."
Quin Monson, associate director of the Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy at BYU, said reaching out to LDS voters is "absolutely" good policy for Utah Democrats, and may even be working. The CSED conducted a survey before this past weekend's state Democratic convention and found that 49 percent of delegates self-identified as members of the LDS Church.
Monson was quick to point out that being a BYU survey, there was a possibility that an inflated number of LDS delegates responded. But if a greater number of LDS voters heeded the call of the church's First Presidency to attend their neighborhood caucus meetings, it stands to reason that more LDS members would be elected as delegates.
"It was more than I thought it was going to be," he said.
Monson said that in politics, both parties are always trying to convert new voters or at the very least persuade opposite-party voters to defect temporarily. While actively reaching out to LDS voters is good long-term strategy for Utah Democrats, he said party leaders should take a cue from the conservative tea party movement and be wary of the intra-party divisions that come with increased numbers.
"What we see in Utah politics is often a culture war," Monson said. "We see less of that visibly in the Democratic Party but it's there nonetheless."