CHEYENNE — Six years ago, Bruce Asay, a Mormon, ran for the U.S. House of Representatives on the Republican ticket.
Asay had a higher-than-average profile as a Mormon because he was a spokesman for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints stake presidents.
He said recently he never encountered any hostility during the campaign because of his religion. Asay lost the primary election to incumbent Barbara Cubin, but not because he was a Mormon, political observers concluded.
In Wyoming, members of the LDS church make up nearly 10 percent of the population of about 550,000. It is the state’s third-largest religious denomination after Protestants and Catholics.
This year, another Mormon, Ron Micheli, is in the political spotlight as one of four Republicans running for governor.
Micheli, 61, is a rancher, a former legislator and former director of the Wyoming Department of Agriculture.
He said he hasn’t found his religion to be a negative in his campaign so far.
Micheli ranches near Fort Bridger in southwest Wyoming — heavy Mormon country.
He said his father’s family was Catholic and his mother’s LDS, so he was raised in both religions but eventually opted for the LDS faith.
Micheli said he does not have a strategy of concentrating on the Mormon and agricultural vote to lock up the primary.
“We want to get as many voters as we can, but we don’t have any goal as far as LDS vote,” Micheli said.
The same approach holds true for the ag vote, he said.
“We want to get as many votes as we can no matter what a person’s faith is or what they do for a living or where they live,” Micheli said. “I don’t think people of the same faith or occupation will automatically vote for you.”
Although the agricultural community has shrunk, its influence still dominates the small towns in rural Wyoming.
“We have some strong ties to that community,” he said.
Asay said Micheli probably is looking more to a conservative element in the state, like agriculture.
“I think he’s aligning himself there certainly more than aligning with a religious group,” Asay said.
University of Wyoming political science professor Jim King said the LDS church “is a prominent religion that some people have strong feelings about both ways.”
Candidates need a base
Any candidate who runs a successful campaign, King said, must have a base of some sort. The question is if the candidate’s base overshadows his or her campaign.
“For example, if someone were running who is closely identified with the environmental movement, would that mask everything else?” King said.
The same question applies to a candidate who identifies closely with mining interests.
The base of support, whatever it is, can be a boost or a detriment. The candidate must convince voters he or she is more than that, more than an environmentalist or a mineral industry candidate.
Some political observers say former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney’s membership in the LDS church hurt him in his quest for the U.S. presidency in 2008. King said that may have been a factor, but Romney had a different set of problems that weren’t associated with his religion. From the beginning of his campaign, Romney’s statements as a candidate for president did not square with what he did as governor of liberal Massachusetts, King said.
Another former presidential candidate, Mike Huckabee, identified with the Christian evangelist movement. But once out of the area where that element was popular, he was typecast.
“Anytime you’re going to play an identity politics strategy, your had better identify with a well-considered group,” King said. “It’s going to mask everything else if you overplay that.”
A secular state
Historically, religion has not played much of a role in elections here, probably because of the clear separation of church and state in the Wyoming Constitution, said Phil Roberts, a UW history professor.
“I think anyone who has read the Wyoming Constitution sees the ample evidence and would have to conclude that this state was absolutely not founded as a Christian state — but a strictly secular one,” Roberts wrote in an e-mail.
“Maybe the constitutional provisions put in place by that constitutional convention in September 1889 had a long-term influence over that consistent separation of church and state in Wyoming,” he said.
Micheli, meanwhile, has been receiving a lot of endorsements from former legislators and from current state Senate President John Hines of Gillette.
Hines, also a rancher, said he knew Micheli before either served in the Legislature because of their memberships in agricultural organizations.
Hines said he believes a candidate with positions like Micheli’s on family values and “the age-old issue of abortion” have more impact on people’s voting decisions than religion.
He noted that a lot of people in agriculture are more conservative than the average voter.
The other three Republican candidates for governor, former U.S. Attorney Matt Mead and State Auditor Rita Meyer, both of Cheyenne, and state House Speaker Colin Simpson of Cody, agreed religion is not a factor in this election. No Democratic candidate for governor has come forward to date.
Mead said he will campaign in every county in Wyoming and already has been to southwest Wyoming and the Big Horn Basin, both LDS strongholds.
“I know Wyoming voters will look at every candidate and base their decision on the person they think is best for Wyoming,” Mead said.
Meyer isn’t writing off any votes either and is visiting every community.
Meyer said her campaign will focus on her proven experience for the job, not on the religious backgrounds of the other candidates.
“Anyone who assumes they will vote solely on religion isn’t giving enough credit to LDS voters,” Colin Simpson said through his campaign manager, Joe Milczewski.
Simpson said that he, too, will campaign in every corner of the state in an effort to win every vote “regardless of faith.”