What's happening to Republicans in Utah, and could it happen to Republicans anywhere else?

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
May 13 2009 3:34 PM

Salt Lake City Liberals

What's happening to Republicans in Utah, and could it happen to Republicans anywhere else?

Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman. Click image to expand.
Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman

What's the matter with Utah? The most Republican state in the nation is drifting to the left. In the last few months, Gov. Jon Huntsman, a Republican and a practicing Mormon, has come out in favor of civil unions for gays and repeated his support for government action on global warming. Meanwhile, the Republican-controlled state legislature has liberalized Utah's notoriously arcane alcohol laws. The punishment for this apostasy has been record-high approval ratings —for both governor and legislature.

The question, at least for the national party, is whether what's happening in the GOP in Utah can happen in the GOP anywhere else. (Whether it wants it to happen is another question.) The short answer is that it's unlikely. Utah's brand of religious conservatism is unique. And last fall's successful but bitter campaign against legalizing gay marriage in California has left the most dominant force in Utah's civic life—the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints—uncharacteristically silent about the very same issue in its home state.

It was just last year that the LDS argued against "public acceptance of non-traditional unions." In a primer on gay marriage prepared by the church in 2006, a senior church leader stated that "homosexual behavior is and will always remain before the Lord an abominable sin" and that Mormons should oppose any state recognition of same-sex relationships, "whether it is civil union or domestic partnership or whatever label it's given."

And yet the church has remained quiet about Huntsman, who has been making headlines recently by stressing the need for the GOP to be more inclusive. "I'm a firm believer in the traditional construct of marriage, a man and a woman," he said. "But I also think that we can go a greater distance in enhancing equal rights for others in nontraditional relationships." Part of the reason for the LDS Church's reticence may be that with an approval rating of 84 percent, Huntsman is the most popular Mormon politician in the country. His name has been floated as a possible presidential candidate in 2012, and David Plouffe, Obama's campaign manager, has named him as a potentially formidable opponent. He's recently struck moderate positions on immigration (he spoke approvingly of Reagan's 1987 amnesty for illegal immigrants) and climate change ("We cannot become the anti-science party and succeed," he told Politico), and he joined a cap-and-trade initiative that has him teamed up with four Canadian provinces to help reduce emissions. Moves like that will help court independents, whom Huntsman has described as America's third party. "They are fiscal conservatives, and more libertarian on social issues."

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Huntsman, who has said that he won't seek a third term as governor, may be gambling that moving left will help him win national appeal down the road. If so, that gamble has worked well for him in Utah as well. It's hard to figure out why Utah's conservatives, and the LDS Church, have gone along with them, but the story of the state's reform of its alcohol laws may provide a clue.

For such changes, LDS approval was a de facto requirement. Mormons—who make up about two-thirds of the state's population but about four-fifths of its legislature—have fought to maintain the laws restricting alcohol sales for decades. This year they relented. Previously, what the rest of the country called bars were "private clubs" in Utah, complete with membership applications and initiation fees. There were restrictions on serving drinks in restaurants and a ban on home brewing, a hobby that State Rep. Greg Bell (a Republican from Fruit Heights) insisted was "fraught with mischief." The new law brings Utah more or less in line with the rest of the country.

The reform of Utah's alcohol laws was a clear-cut case of economic concerns trumping social ones. When he signed the bill, Huntsman argued that it would help tourism in the state, and the biggest advocate for reform was the Utah Hospitality Association. The cost of Utah's weirdness grew too high as the threat of tourist money drying up loomed. So the great men of the state—or at least a few guys in Salt Lake City—declared, "Let the liquor flow." Huntsman and the legislature recently got high marks from the electorate on economic matters. Unemployment in the state is 5.4 percent, well below that of the rest of the nation.

Make no mistake: Mormons are still taught that consuming alcohol (and tobacco and coffee) is a sin. But during the debate over alcohol reform, LDS released a statement saying that although the church "teaches its members to avoid alcohol altogether," there can be room for "individual freedom of choice" in this case. This stance is a reversal of the usual position of religious conservatives in the United States. Mormons and Christian conservatives may not always get along, but they agree that moral issues such as abortion deserve a central place in public life. The arguments of lily-livered Christian liberals, who maintain that abortion is perhaps morally wrong but shouldn't be legislated by the state, are anathema. Now Huntsman and others seem to be embracing just that sort of separation between private and public morality.

As for the LDS, it might have reason to want to stay out of the limelight for a while on both the alcohol bill and the issue of civil unions. After heavy criticism over its role in supporting the campaign against gay marriage in California, the church made several pleas to be left alone. It said it was being "singled out" by protesters, whose behavior the church called "disturbing." Remaining silent on Huntsman's civil unions saves it from a fresh round of unwanted attention.

So what do we have in Utah? A governor with presidential ambitions and, perhaps, a genuine commitment to inclusiveness and equality. A conservative base for which once-fraught social issues now seem beside the point. And a chastened church. That's the combination which is allowing the Republicans of Utah to navigate through an Obama world. Too bad it won't translate too easily to other states—or to the Republican Party nationally.

Christopher Cox is a senior editor of the Paris Review.

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