Washington • Utah Democrats are bringing their Mormon outreach to a national stage, hosting a fundraiser headlined by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid during the upcoming Democratic National Convention.
The plan is for the new LDS Democrats caucus to hold the event on Sept. 4 at a hotel across the street from main convention hall in Charlotte, N.C., where first lady Michelle Obama will address the nation later that evening.
Organizers hope to attract Mormons living in North Carolina and any LDS delegates attending the week's festivities as part of a wider campaign to persuade Latter-day Saints to take a second look at the Democratic Party.
"While some people question Senator Reid's political view of the world, no one has ever questioned his commitment, his faith and his testimony in the LDS Church," said Jim Dabakis, chairman of the Utah Democratic Party. "It is a thrill and a pleasure to have Senator Reid speak to LDS Dems."
The group has also invited other Mormon Democrats, such as Sen. Tom Udall, of New Mexico. In all, they expect about 200 people. The cost to attend is $100, though caucus members were given some free tickets.
The event will take place just days after Mitt Romney accepts the Republican nomination, becoming the first Mormon to represent a major party, a fact not lost on organizers.
"It's pretty important that the image our state and our church projects is not just the conservative Mitt Romney image," said Craig Janis, of South Jordan, an active member of the LDS Dems and a national delegate. "I would love for our image as LDS people and as Utahns more generally to be such that there is no political association with it."
Dabakis knows some may construe their effort as a shot at Romney, but he said that's not the goal.
"This is really not about Mitt Romney," he said. "This is about building the Utah Democratic Party and the Democratic Party in the West generationally."
That is a big goal in a state where Republicans dominate in a big way, in large part because of the conservative tendencies of the LDS faith.
Polls show Mormon gap for Democrats • Exit polls by Dan Jones & Associates have found only 8 percent of Utah Mormons are Democrats, while nationally the figure is 17 percent, according to a broader Pew Research Center poll. A poll released by Trinity College in 2011 found a similar spread, 14 percent nationally and 7 percent in Utah.
Dabakis said if the state party can close the gap, it could result in more electoral wins for Utah's minority party and potentially boost Democrats in other areas with large Mormon populations such as Southern California and Nevada.
"I think the decoupling process will be good certainly for the state of Utah, probably for the LDS Church," he said, "and it will have an effect nationally."
In the past, Utah Democrats have tried to become more competitive by recruiting Mormon candidates, but last October they launched the LDS Dems to target voters themselves. More than 100 people gathered in Murray Park for the kickoff event, and since then the caucus has grown to more than 2,000 members.
Jamie Hartley, a Mormon and a national delegate from Alpine, had only four people in her Democratic neighborhood caucus meeting earlier this year, but she believes that has something to do with social pressure.
"When I was vocal about being a Democrat when I was in church, I had people tell me in secret that they consider themselves to be Democrats," she said. "I think there are more people who think that way, but are afraid to talk about it."
Dabakis argues that phenomenon happens because Republicans have created "a mythology" making LDS culture synonymous with Republican politics, when that's not the case.
"We want LDS people. We want their values," he said. "We want their candidates."
Former state Rep. Holly Richardson, a Republican, says Mormons can be Democrats, but they'll have to navigate conflicts between their faith and their political persuasion, namely on abortion and gay rights.
Mormon leaders have come out strongly against abortion, except in cases of rape, incest or when the life or health of the mother is seriously threatened, and the faith has spent millions of dollars fighting attempts to legalize gay marriage in states such as California.
Controversy over Reid • Richardson said Utah Democrats won't help themselves by holding an event with Harry Reid, a person she believes isn't so popular among Utahns.
"Aligning yourself with Harry Reid right now is not going to help you in any Utah races," Richardson said. "He just epitomizes Barack Obama's policies, and in Utah it is just not a popular message."
When Reid argued in 2009 that the LDS Church made a public relations blunder with its campaign against gay marriage in California, Richardson told The Salt Lake Tribune that Reid "is an embarrassment to me as a Mormon."
More recently, Reid stated his support for gay marriage, and Richardson says her opinion of Reid has worsened. She also criticized his votes on health care and his recent attack on Romney over not releasing tax returns.
Harry Reid said he had a source within Bain Capital, which Romney used to run, who told him Romney hadn't paid taxes in 10 years, though Reid offered no evidence to back the claim. Romney has said he has paid taxes at a rate of no less than 13 percent each year.
Dabakis dismisses the focus on abortion and gay marriage, saying the conversation should move past two social issues to include health care, education and the environment, and he noted the Democratic Party doesn't expect anyone to follow every plank of the platform.
"There is plenty of room for variation," he said. "We embrace those differing opinions; we don't feel bad about that."
He pointed to Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah, who doesn't support gay marriage or abortion. Senate candidate Scott Howell and gubernatorial candidate Peter Cooke, are also Mormon Democrats, who hold similar views. None of the three will attend the convention or the LDS Dems' fundraiser as they remain in Utah to campaign.
The Utah Democratic Party has long fought the more liberal reputation of the national party, but with Republicans electing more conservative candidates, Miriam Hyde, a delegate from Salt Lake City, sees an opening.
She said she saw some of the people from her LDS ward people she never would have assumed were Democrats in attendance at a Democratic neighborhood caucus.
"People, I think, are looking for something more moderate, though not necessarily liberal."
The Mormon partisan divide
Polls show Mormons outside of Utah are more open to voting for Democrats than those in the state are, but that the vast majority are Republicans.
Republicans • 59 percent
Democrats • 14 percent
Mormons in Utah
Republicans • 66 percent
Democrats • 7 percent
Source: Trinity College poll, 2008