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These Mormon women are rejecting Trump, fraying GOP support in a key state

GILBERT, Ariz. — It was Annie Lewis' idea to put a "Republicans for Biden" sign in the front yard in the lead-up to 2020. For her, it came down to civility. As a teacher for over a decade, the mother of six little ones, and a lifelong member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, she felt then-President Trump did not show true leadership.

"I was embarrassed anytime a clip of Trump, at that time, was on and my children were in the room," Lewis said.

Lewis was not alone in her thinking. In 2020, GOP residents of Maricopa County in Arizona banded together to stand up against Trump. The signs were created by Dan Barker, a leader in the Maricopa County LDS community and former GOP-appointed judge, who wanted to find a way to support Biden without giving up his lifelong Republican identity.

His wife, Nan, was the one who pushed him to have a sign.

"She probably got there quicker than I did," said Barker, who in 2020 started the political action committee Arizona Republicans Who Believe in Treating Others with Respect. "I just wasn't quite comfortable identifying with the Democratic Party. And so for me, I said, hey, well, I'd rather do something like, 'Republicans for Biden.' "

Dan Barker, a retired judge who created the group "Arizona Republicans Who Believe In Treating Others With Respect," poses with a sign to encourage voters to choose Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden, during evening rush hour in Phoenix in October 2020.
/ Robyn Beck/AFP via Getty Images
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Robyn Beck/AFP via Getty Images
Dan Barker, a retired judge who created the group "Arizona Republicans Who Believe In Treating Others With Respect," poses with a sign to encourage voters to choose Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden, during evening rush hour in Phoenix in October 2020.

Barker doled out thousands of signs, picketing at busy street corners and standing them up on lawns. Sometimes they were torn down, and other times they created controversy on community Facebook pages. But Biden ultimately won the state by just over 10,000 votes and flipped Maricopa County, the county with the largest share of Arizona's voters. Barker credits the win, in part, to his campaign.

"That's one of the main reasons we did it — so that people would know that you could be a conservative and vote for Biden because you did not find Trump acceptable," Barker said. "And Biden was somebody that you can vote for, you don't have to agree with every position he takes."

With Trump back in the GOP's top seat, Barker hopes to reignite his PAC's efforts.

Members of the LDS church make up just over 5% of the population in Arizona. But in this state, margins matter — making it prime for all kinds of voting blocs to flex their power. The Trump campaign nationally struggled to court reliably Republican LDS voters in 2016, andagain in 2020, andrecently views on Trump have not improved. In a state where tight margins and voter enthusiasm could determine the White House, several self-identifying Republican LDS women say the party has left them behind.

Residents of Maricopa County vote at a polling station inside the LDS church in Mesa, Ariz., on presidential preference election day in March.
/ Keren Carrión/NPR
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Keren Carrión/NPR
Residents of Maricopa County vote at a polling station inside the LDS church in Mesa, Ariz., on presidential preference election day in March.

How LDS Republicans began to question their party loyalty

Günes Murat Tezcür, director of the School of Politics and Global Studies at Arizona State University, said LDS members are typically reliable Republican voters. But changes in the GOP over the last eight years under Trump's leadership have led to hesitation.

"There's something to be said about the more urban, educated Mormons who became more questioning," Tezcür said, describing the demographic in Maricopa County. "That makes Arizona more interesting because this population may have some real implications for the outcome of the election every November, especially in the presidential contest."

Stan Barnes, a political consultant in Phoenix, agrees that Republican voters — particularly women — turning away from their party's candidates has helped Democrats win the presidency and the governor's office.

Jon Ryder is the executive director of the Maricopa County Democrats in Phoenix.
/ Keren Carrión/NPR
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Keren Carrión/NPR
Jon Ryder is the executive director of the Maricopa County Democrats in Phoenix.

"There are people all over Arizona that are otherwise Republican voters that don't know what to do because they cannot get over Donald Trump's jackassery," Barnes said. "They don't know how to bring themselves to vote for someone that they judge to be so flawed as a human being."

The Trump campaign and Arizona GOP did not respond to a request for comment on how they are courting LDS voters and responding to criticism.

But the sense that voters might be up for grabs is not lost on the other side. Jon Ryder, executive director of the Maricopa County Democrats, said he is looking forward to courting these questioning voters.

"We have the Democrats we want to turn out, we have the independents who we have to make sure are voting our way and turn out," Ryder said. "And then we have the persuasion universe of independents and Republicans, especially Republican women, who when they hear our message or when they hear the message from our candidates, are more likely to support our candidates than the other side. And so we do have a plan for that."

Political involvement is almost a given

Tezcür said that certain elements of the LDS faith, such as serving missions and its history as a violently persecuted religious minority, might make some members more open to progressive views on immigration and diversity, while still having conservative stances on economic policy, government regulation and other social issues.

On a sunny day in Gilbert, six women, including Lewis, gathered in a large living room in Andersen's home to discuss their experiences in religion and politics. They tout their community involvement in particular.

Annie Lewis is a teacher and a mother of six children. Lewis put up "Republican for Biden" signs in her front yard for the 2020 election.
/ Keren Carrión/NPR
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Keren Carrión/NPR
Annie Lewis is a teacher and a mother of six children. Lewis put up "Republican for Biden" signs in her front yard for the 2020 election.

"We're very involved citizens. So you're going to get active people [who do and don't support Trump]," said Jane Andersen, a member of Mormon Women for Ethical Government, a nonprofit group that promotes civic engagement among the LDS community. "But I think there is a vested interest, especially for women, in becoming active in this sphere."

Running for city council, state legislature, working at polling sites and with nonprofits, they all emphasized how their work and faith influence how they want to inspire their own children.

"I get to go out and experience things in the schools, and I get to go out and see things in the community," said Rachel Albertsen, who lives in Gilbert and voted for then-presidential candidate Nikki Haley in March. "My husband goes to an office and he comes home. That's a unique experience that I get to go and my kids see me doing things like that."

Rachel Albertson is also involved in her community and hopes her children can see her as an example of someone active in civics and in their faith.
/ Keren Carrión/NPR
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Keren Carrión/NPR
Rachel Albertson is also involved in her community and hopes her children can see her as an example of someone active in civics and in their faith.

This tight community feels a sense of 'political homelessness'

All the women who gathered to speak to NPR are members of the LDS church, and all, at least at one point, were registered Republicans.

Julie Spilsbury, a council member in Mesa, says she's always been a registered Republican, "Mostly because that's how I was raised." Spilsbury also voted for Haley in March's election.

Despite Arizona holding a closed primary where independents could not participate, Haley — who generally attracted independent voters — received nearly 20% of the vote.

"The term 'politically homeless' resonates with me," Spilsbury said. "If you're a Republican, but you're not a MAGA Republican or a Trump Republican, where do you fit?"

Maricopa County has the third-highest number of church congregations, or "stakes," and temples. What makes the LDS community unique, Spilsbury said, is that, unlike other religions, members do not get to pick which congregation they attend. It is split up geographically, like school districts.

It's done for practical and spiritual reasons to promote tolerance of differences, including political differences. But that doesn't always go as intended.

Julie Spilsbury is a councilmember in Mesa.
/ Keren Carrión/NPR
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Keren Carrión/NPR
Julie Spilsbury is a councilmember in Mesa.

"I have about five or six families in our ward that will not speak to my husband and I over political differences. And these are people whom we have served with throughout the years and have incredible sacred experiences together," Spilsbury said. "And because we have political differences now, we can't be friends. And that's painful."

Suzanne Lunt of Gilbert, who also voted for Haley, left the Republican Party after the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, and only switched back to vote against Trump in March.

"I remained a Republican until Jan. 6. And then I watched to see how the Republican Party would respond to the events that occurred," Lunt said. "And I wasn't pleased with that. And so I became an independent."

She noted the issue of abortion is often what keeps people loyal to the party, especially in the church. But a recent church address allowed her to feel like she didn't have to toe the party line.

Suzanne Lunt, from Gilbert, Ariz., was a lifelong Republican until Jan. 6 happened. Now, Lunt is an independent.
/ Keren Carrión/NPR
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Keren Carrión/NPR
Suzanne Lunt, from Gilbert, Ariz., was a lifelong Republican until Jan. 6 happened. Now, Lunt is an independent.

"One of our leaders said, 'You may not be able to focus just on that one issue, that we've got to think about the whole person and the morality and the goodness and that you have to choose what's most important to you,' " Lunt said. "And it kind of gave me permission."

Division within Arizona Republicans has been exacerbated by candidates' political rhetoric up and down the ballot, said Andersen, recalling when then-gubernatorial candidate (now-Senate candidate)Kari Lake told Republicans affiliating with the late Sen. John McCain to "get out." Lake has since walked back the statement.

"Because I have some issues with authority, I have decided I will stay firmly planted," Andersen said. "I will still be a registered Republican, in part because you can't tell me I don't belong. And guess what? You don't grow a party by kicking people out."

Andersen said she has never supported Trump. The last straw for her was when Trump imitated a journalist with disabilities during a political rally in 2016 — she thought of her son, who has a disability.

Jane Andersen at her home in Gilbert, Ariz.
/ Keren Carrión/NPR
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Keren Carrión/NPR
Jane Andersen at her home in Gilbert, Ariz.

"Not only did that not resonate with me, it angered me. Because my son has value. It doesn't matter if he's different," Andersen said. "Our country can weather some bad tax policy, but if we are led by people devoid of character, that's going to produce generational harm."

All the women said they think about how their faith, involvement and vote will impact the next generation. Albertsen, a mother of four, reflected on how one of her daughters perceived her role in the community.

"She sees an example of a mother who is active in civics and is active in the community and is active in her faith community," Albertsen said. "And I think that's something within our faith community. ... We all have multiple children that we're influencing."

Where the opportunities lie

Although a faction of the GOP base is feeling uneasy about their candidates, many are still likely to support the party picks — especially when faced with a Biden record they may not fully align with.

"Let's face it, Donald Trump is a flawed human being and a flawed candidate, but he's not running against a perfect human being and a perfect candidate," said Barnes, the Phoenix-based consultant. "Now it is about Trump, the flawed candidate, versus the Biden record, which is as sour as it can be in Arizona."

A "vote here" sign is seen on presidential preference election day in Maricopa County's Mesa, Ariz., at a Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
/ Keren Carrión/NPR
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Keren Carrión/NPR
A "vote here" sign is seen on presidential preference election day in Maricopa County's Mesa, Ariz., at a Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Reita Juarez is one Maricopa County LDS voter who has voted for Trump and plans to do so again. Still, he wasn't her top pick. Originally a registered independent, she switched to Republican in the presidential preference and voted for businessman Vivek Ramaswamy. Ahead of the general, she considered voting for Robert F. Kennedy Jr., before settling on Trump again.

"I don't have a ton of trust for our government anymore. And that goes for both Republicans and Democrats," Juarez said. "I'm not happy with the Republican Party as a whole."

Although she agrees Trump's behavior is not something she likes either, she still finds herself aligning with his conservative stances on immigration and abortion. At times, she said, she also feels ostracized for her political choices within the LDS community.

"We all have to end up justifying something somewhere. If I justify Trump's big, big, fat mouth or his awful rhetoric, it's because we're limited with these choices," Juarez said. "We have to balance and weigh these things."

People vote on presidential preference election day in Mesa, Ariz., at a Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
/ Keren Carrión/NPR
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Keren Carrión/NPR
People vote on presidential preference election day in Mesa, Ariz., at a Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Cheeri Farnsworth, another lifelong Republican voter, is also planning to be loyal to Trump and has hosted private meet-and-greets for Republican Senate candidate Lake.

"[Trump] aligns with my family values and with my religion and what I feel like this country needs right now," Farnsworth said, noting border security is one of her top issues. "We all get to choose what we want. Who we want to vote for, what our beliefs are — we have that freedom. We have good friends I can think of off the top of my head that are voting for Biden."

Still, the women who are planning to support the current president warn that Biden needs to reach out more. They said they haven't seen much movement, but there is plenty of opportunity — especially with younger LDS members.

At the end of the day, Spilsbury finds political power on all sides in what she calls the "Maricopa County, East Valley Mormon moms."

"Moms make the world go round and nothing gets done without us. And we have power," Spilsbury said, noting that her youngest of six will be 18 this election. "Our voices matter. What we teach our kids matters."

Copyright 2024 NPR

Ximena Bustillo
Ximena Bustillo is a multi-platform reporter at NPR covering politics out of the White House and Congress on air and in print.