LDS presidential candidates: One GOP nomination, one assassination, many attacks for church views — but never a win
(Scott Keeler| file photo Tampa Bay Times via AP) Then-GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney gives a speech to supporters at the Sanford International Airport in Sanford, Fla. on Nov. 5, 2012.
Democrat Joe Biden seeks to become the second-ever Catholic U.S. president. President Donald Trump is among nine Presbyterians who became commander in chief. Episcopalians hold the record
for most presidents: 11.
No Latter-day Saint has ever won the job — but it’s not for lack of trying. In fact, this is the first presidential election since 2004 when no member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has been a significant candidate.
Ten nationally known church members (or former members) campaigned for president through the years, with one fairly close second-place finish by Republican Mitt Romney in 2012.
So as presidential politics and LDS General Conference mix again during the fall of an election year, here is a look back at some of the best-known Latter-day Saints who ran for the White House — although several more ran as fringe candidates who won little more than a handful of votes.
• Joseph Smith, 1844. Not only was he the first Latter-day Saint presidential candidate, he also was the first Latter-day Saint. He taught that Jesus Christ restored his church through him as a modern prophet.
He ran for president in 1844, largely to fight persecution that his followers suffered. Historian Richard Poll wrote that Smith likely developed the idea after Latter-day Saint leaders wrote to other candidates asking how they might help the faith — and none supported the federal intervention that the church sought.
Missionaries traveled throughout the states and carried copies of Smith’s platform. It called for ending slavery by compensating owners, financing the government through tariffs, creating a national bank, and bringing Oregon and Texas into the union.
However, persecution in Illinois intensified. It led to Smith’s assassination by a mob in June 1844
. Latter-day Saints were forced out of Illinois in 1846 and migrated to remote Utah.
• George Romney, 1968. The father of Mitt Romney was governor of Michigan and former head of American Motors Corp. when he became a leading Republican candidate for the White House in the early part of the 1968 race.
Some questions about religion arose, including whether being a Mormon made him racist because the LDS Church, at the time, did not ordain Blacks
to its all-male priesthood.
But Romney had a record of actively opposing segregation and prejudice in Detroit and was a promoter of civil rights. He told a ministerial association, "If my church prevented me as a public official from doing those things for social justice that I thought right, I would quit the church. But it does not."
(Tribune file photo) George Romney and his son Willard Mitt Romney in 1958.
What doomed his campaign, historians say, was his response to why he had changed his earlier strong support for the Vietnam War. He said military officials earlier had given him "the greatest brainwashing that anybody can get." He was lambasted for what many said was an inept explanation.
He withdrew from the race before the first-in-the-nation New Hampshire primary. He finished sixth in voting at the GOP convention with 50 votes (44 from Michigan and six from Utah). Eventual winner Richard Nixon later named Romney as secretary of housing and urban development.
• Morris Udall, 1976. The witty, liberal Democrat from Arizona, who was a former pro basketball player for the Denver Nuggets, ran for president in 1976. He had not been an active Latter-day Saint since he was a teenager, but the question of Blacks and the priesthood hurt him anyway.
Udall (who lost an eye as a child) would joke about his chances during the campaign by saying: “I’m a one-eyed Mormon Democrat from conservative Arizona. You can’t find a higher handicap than that.”
When he appeared to be gaining ground on Jimmy Carter in a critical Michigan primary, Detroit Mayor Coleman Young famously told Black ministers that while Carter had tried to open the front doors of the church to Blacks, Udall’s church “won’t even let you in the back door.” Ironically, Carter’s church, at the time, didn’t let in Black members while Udall’s Latter-day Saint faith allowed Blacks to join the church and attend worship services.
Udall lost the Michigan primary by three-tenths of a percentage point, and Carter went on to ultimate victory. Udall finished a distant second for pledged delegates won in Democratic primaries.
• Bo Gritz, 1992. He was an outspoken former Green Beret and a recent Latter-day Saint convert when he became the nominee of the minor Populist Party in 1992.
He gained national attention by helping negotiate an end to an 11-day standoff in northern Idaho between federal agents and white separatist Randy Weaver
Two years later, Gritz announced that he had asked the LDS Church to remove his name from its membership rolls. He said that came after his stake president — a regional lay leader — refused to renew his temple recommend because Gritz did not plan to file an income tax return.
• Orrin Hatch, 2000. The longest-serving senator ever from Utah — he was in office for 42 years — made a short-lived run for president in 2000. But he entered the race late and never made it into the top GOP tier.
He finished last in the first-in-the-nation Iowa caucuses and dropped out.
(Manuel Balce Ceneta | AP file photo) President Donald Trump president the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Sen. Orrin Hatch on Nov. 16, 2018.
He delayed the announcement for a day because a snowstorm closed the Capitol in Washington. He joked at the time, “I said to Elaine [his wife], ‘Maybe I shouldn’t resign because this snowstorm is a sign from God.’ And Elaine responded, ‘No, Orrin. The Iowa caucuses were a sign from God.’”
When he retired from the Senate in 2019, he was replaced by Mitt Romney, another former Latter-day Saint presidential candidate.
• Mitt Romney, 2008 and 2012. The former Massachusetts governor and head of Salt Lake City’s 2002 Winter Olympics — and now senator from Utah — was by far the most successful of any Latter-day Saint presidential candidate. He won the 2012 GOP nomination but lost to incumbent Democratic President Barack Obama.
That came after Romney had run unsuccessfully in 2008. Because of attacks then, he had to address concerns about Mormonism in a John F. Kennedy-style speech.
“Let me assure you that no authorities of my church, or any other church, for that matter, will ever exert influence on presidential decisions,” he said at the George H.W. Bush Presidential Library in Texas.
In 2008, Romney — a former Latter-day Saint stake president and bishop — won 11 state primaries or caucuses but dropped out two days after the Super Tuesday primaries showed that Arizona Sen. John McCain would be the eventual nominee.
Romney ran as the GOP front-runner in 2012, and his religion figured far less into that campaign.
(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) Mitt Romney and running mate Paul Ryan wave at the close of the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Florida on August 30, 2012.
What appeared to hurt him deeply against Obama was a video in which he told supporters, “There are 47% of the people who will vote for the president no matter what … who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims. … These are people who pay no income tax … and so my job is not to worry about those people.”
Romney won 60.9 million votes, or 47.2% of the total
(including a whopping 72.8% of the presidential vote in Utah).
• Rocky Anderson, 2012. The former Salt Lake City mayor ran as the nominee of the new Justice Party in 2012.
He was baptized as a Latter-day Saint as a youth but was not an active member as an adult — and listed himself as Episcopalian when he was a mayoral candidate.
(Chris Detrick | Tribune file photo) Former Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson.
Anderson said his minor-party candidacy was “about taking on the two corporatist, militarist parties.”
He received 43,018 votes, for 0.03% of the vote , and finished seventh nationally.
• Jon Huntsman, 2012. The former Utah governor was a third Latter-day Saint who ran for president in the 2012 race.
Huntsman, a former ambassador to China and Russia, ran as a moderate Republican against Mitt Romney and other conservatives.
(Charles Dharapak | AP file photo) Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman speaks in Myrtle Beach, S.C., as he ends his 2012 campaign for president.
He also ran as the sort of Mormon who he said is “tough to define.” He told an interviewer, “I come from a long line of saloon keepers and proselytizers, and I draw from both sides.”
His moderate political messages did not play well in early GOP campaigning. He finished third in the New Hampshire primary, where he had targeted most of his resources, and dropped out Jan. 16.
• Marco Rubio, 2016. The senator from Florida was a Latter-day Saint as a youth but later returned to Catholicism and also attends a Southern Baptist megachurch.
He was baptized into The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints at age 8 after his family had moved to Las Vegas next door to some church members.
“All in all, the Mormon church provided the sound moral structure my mother had wanted for us, and a circle of friends from stable, God-fearing families,” Rubio wrote in his autobiography. “When we left the church a few years later, mostly at my instigation, we did so with gratitude for its considerable contribution to our happiness in those years.”
Rubio wrote that the church’s ban on tobacco, alcohol and coffee made staying tough. He wrote that his father, who never joined the LDS Church, had smoked since age 13 and worked as a bartender. Neither parent gave up Cuban coffee.
(John Bazemore | AP file photo) Republican presidential candidate, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., right, hands Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump a tic tac container at a break during the CBS News Republican presidential debate on Feb. 13, 2016.
The Washington Post in 2016
noted that the LDS Church considers people who have been baptized still to be members, no matter how active they are, unless they formally ask for their names to be removed from its records. So it said if Rubio had won, he could have been the first Latter-day Saint president and second Catholic president.
Rubio’s campaign never really caught fire. He finished first only in Puerto Rico and Minnesota, and won 173 GOP delegates — essentially finishing third in the race for the Republican nomination behind Donald Trump and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz.
• Evan McMullin, 2016
. The former CIA operative who turned into an investment banker and congressional staffer jumped into the race late in 2016 as a conservative independent alternative
to Republican Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton.
“I saw a lack of willingness of Republican leaders to stand up to Donald Trump even as he attacked people of different races and religions, people with disabilities, and anybody else who he found to be vulnerable,” he told a Utah crowd
(Alex Gallivan | Special to the Tribune) Independent presidential candidate Evan McMullin speaks at a rally in Draper on Oct 21, 2016.
“When we see leaders or would-be leaders in this country attacking our ideals, we must reject them,” the lifelong Latter-day Saint said, explaining why he ran.
McMullin entered the race four months before Election Day, so late he was able to put his name on the ballot in only 11 states. But with his Latter-day Saint ties and heavy local opposition at the time to Trump, McMullin actually led in polls in Utah in October that year.
On Election Day, however, McMullin finished third in Utah
with 21.5% of the vote, compared to 27.5% for Clinton and 45.5% for Trump. Nationally, McMullin finished fifth in the popular vote with 731,991 votes, or 0.54% of the total.
Editor’s note • Jon Huntsman is a brother of Paul Huntsman, chairman of The Salt Lake Tribune’s nonprofit board of directors.