BOISE - Idaho Gov. Butch Otter brought in former presidential candidate Mitt Romney to stump for him Wednesday in Idaho Falls and Boise, in an effort to pump up support among LDS voters in southern and eastern Idaho.
Idaho Falls businessman Frank VanderSloot, who hosted the Idaho Falls campaign stop at his Melaleuca Inc. headquarters, rallied the crowd in Boise, saying Otter’s Democratic challenger, Keith Allred, has been sending eastern Idaho Mormons the message, “I’m Mormon so vote for me because I’m one of you guys.” VanderSloot said, “My answer to that is, well, Harry Reid is a Mormon.”
Between a quarter and a third of Idaho’s population belongs to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, of which Romney and VanderSloot are members, as is Allred; Otter is Catholic.
Allred, who is running as a Democrat but has made his mark as a non-partisan citizen activist, recently announced the support of a number of prominent eastern Idaho Republicans, many of whom are LDS. The recent Idaho Newspapers Poll showed Otter ahead of Allred statewide 45 percent to 29 percent, but in southeastern Idaho, which has the state’s heaviest concentration of LDS church membership, that lead shrank to 42 percent to 36 percent.
“It’s unfortunate that Frank Vandersloot wants to use religious and partisan labels to distract people from the actual positions held by the candidates,” Allred decared Wednesday. “I stand for keeping taxes low on Idaho families and providing a great education for Idaho schoolkids. These are priorities that Republicans and Democrats, Mormons and non-Mormons alike support. … It’s precisely because my priorities are resonating so well with Idahoans that Butch Otter has asked Mitt Romney to ride to his rescue.”
Romney, who also came to Idaho to campaign for Otter when he first ran for governor four years ago, told a cheering crowd of more than 100 at the Linen Building in Boise, “People recognize we’ve got a chance to get this country on the right course again.”
He criticized “liberals,” and said, “They’re smothering the spirit that makes America such an engine of vitality and growth, and we’re not going to let them do that.”
Romney lauded Otter for making sure Idaho’s state government “lives within its means,” and said. “When things are tough … that’s when you test the real mettle of a leader.”
Historic budget cuts that Otter and the GOP-dominated Idaho Legislature approved this year - including an unprecedented cut in school funding - have been a major point of contention between Otter and Allred in this year’s campaign.
Otter, speaking after Romney, called up the four statewide elected officials who were in the audience - Secretary of State Ben Ysursa, Superintendent of Schools Tom Luna, state Controller Donna Jones and Attorney General Lawrence Wasden - to join him, and said, “We’re asking you now to keep this team together. … The last four years this team, along with the state Legislature, has had to make some tough decisions.”
The Boise rally, which was free, followed a luncheon at Chandler’s steakhouse downtown for big-dollar campaign contributors, at which Otter spoke and Romney mingled; about 60 people attended. In Idaho Falls, Otter campaign spokesman Ryan Panitz said more than 400 people attended a rally in a large auditorium at Melaleuca, about a quarter of them Melaleuca employees.
Jim Weatherby, political scientist emeritus at Boise State University, said, “I’m not surprised Otter brought Romney in, not for his support of a health care mandate in Massachusetts, but for his popularity in eastern Idaho.” Otter is a vocal opponent of a government mandate that individuals purchase health insurance; Idaho is suing the federal government over the issue. Romney, as governor of Massachusetts, enacted a mandate there as a key part of that state’s health care reforms.
The LDS vote, Weatherby said, is “a significant factor in eastern Idaho, where Butch Otter has not run very strongly.”
Otter said, “Mitt and I have very similar value systems and I consider him a close friend and confidant.”