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Romney's challenge: What Bexar County's primaries could tell America about the anti-Mormon vote

Photo: Photo illustration by Chuck Kerr, License: N/A

Photo illustration by Chuck Kerr

Photo: Steven Gilmore, License: N/A

Steven Gilmore

A new Mormon temple being constructed on Talley Road.

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Ever since Richard Nixon's 1968 presidential victory, Bexar County has been on the winning side of the ballot — even when Texas as a whole swung the other way. For that reason, Bexar County is known as an electoral bellwether. We don't propel a candidate to victory, of course, but the past 50 years suggest we're a pretty good indicator of where the nation is headed.

Politics are religiously charged for Lone Star voters, so how Bexar County reacts to Romney's faith in the upcoming GOP primary — particularly now that Rick Santorum has dropped out of the race — should matter to electoral geeks as they parse exit polls. Whether or not the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints likes it, Mitt Romney's candidacy has become framed as the "Mormon Moment," and how that plays out in bellwether Bexar will shed light on the general elections later this year.

A University of Texas poll in February found that 65 percent of all San Antonio voters would support a Mormon candidate for president. That's higher than the statewide proportion of 59 percent, but it still means that a third of San Antonio respondents either would refuse to back Romney on the basis of his religion or were unsure. Most of those in the anti-Mormon camp hail from the conservative evangelical Christian pillar of the GOP.

The fratricidal Republican primary process has foregrounded conservative social issues and religion. This is why, time after time, exit polls have shown that while Protestant Christian voters think Mitt Romney is closer to the median voter and most capable of ousting Obama, they have preferred to "vote their values."

Bexar GOP Chairman Curt Nelson shrugs off questions about the divisive, faith-charged Republican primary process, saying simply that "the voters will decide." But that tautology requires a caveat: it's activist voters who will decide this primary; only some 10 percent of eligible voters have participated in the primaries, roughly half of which have been white evangelical Protestants often openly hostile to the LDS church. Many issues may be creating Romney's "enthusiasm" gap among Republicans nationally, but Romney's true Achilles heel in the Bible Belt, the real wedge issue that has inspired the party's activist base to swarm from one candidate to another, has heretofore been religious intolerance of the Mormon faith. To win in November, he requires the full energized base of support from his party, rooted in the conservative south.

A big Bexar victory could prove that's possible. But more likely the bellwether will reveal insurmountable electoral obstacles on the road to a Romney White House.

Built It, And They Shall Come

Mormons have been a part of Bexar County almost since the faith's inception. Indeed, the first temple west of the Mississippi was built just outside Fredericksburg in a settlement named Zodiac. Facing persecution in Illinois, founder of the faith Joseph Smith eyed Texas as a potential new homeland, and up until his 1844 lynching was negotiating with Sam Houston. Later, Brigham Young opted to guide followers to Utah, but he agreed to let Apostle Lyman Wight lead 150 men and women to Texas to explore Smith's mandate. The Texas LDS pioneers founded various settlements and built the Zodiac temple. Young subsequently recalled Wight to Utah, but Wight, maybe bitten by the Lone Star independence bug, refused and was excommunicated.

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