08.11.11

The Other Mormon Primary

Jeff Flake and Wil Cardon, the candidates in Arizona’s GOP Senate primary, come from the same Mormon congregation. McKay Coppins talks to churchgoers about the resulting tension.

Arizona’s Republican Senate primary is heating up—and it’s bound to make for some awkward church barbecues.  

That’s because the only two candidates currently in the nomination race come from the same, relatively small Mormon “ward” in north Mesa—a congregation now anxiously divided by a campaign that pits two longtime friends and neighbors against each other.   

At first glance, the race may look like a standard battle in the so-called “Republican Civil War” being waged across the country. In one camp, there’s Rep. Jeff Flake, a five-term congressman and rising star in the GOP establishment with a moderate record on immigration (the state’s hottest issue). In the other there’s Wil Cardon, a wealthy businessman with Tea Party ties who’s running as an outsider and pledging to “change Washington.”   

But the candidates’ personal friendship and shared faith add a twist to the narrative. Cardon is a longtime donor to Flake’s congressional campaigns. And although he eventually moved to neighboring Gilbert (which led him to attend a different congregation), Cardon maintains family ties to Flake’s LDS ward and is an occasional visitor. Several mutual acquaintances say the two families used to be good friends—but not anymore.  

“Let me put it this way,” says one resident who requested anonymity to speak candidly. “I don’t see them playing in racquetball tournaments together anymore. It creates a lot of awkward experiences with their families and kids.”  

Throughout multiple interviews with members of the neighborhood, “awkward” was the most common adjective used to describe the situation. The race has sent shockwaves through the wealthy suburb, where book clubs and block parties are suddenly being threatened by the uncouth business of politics—and no one is all that anxious to start declaring his or her allegiance.  

“Wow, I’d better be careful here,” Dave Johnson, a Flake fundraiser who “practically grew up in the Cardons’ house,” said when reached for comment. 

“You’d have to be living in la-la land to think it’s not creating conflict in the community,” says John Perkinson, another Mesa Mormon. “I’m very close friends with all of them; I’ll remain neutral as far as you’re concerned.”  

A third resident was blunter in summing up the neighborhood tensions: “The whole thing is like a giant Mormon Jerry Springer show.”  

Of course, political campaigns have been disrupting social circles since before the voting booth was invented. But rarely are the quarters so close—and the stakes so high—as they are in the Mesa primary drama. Barring a much-hyped but increasingly improbable Senate bid by Democratic Rep. Gabby Giffords, the winner of Arizona’s “Mormon Primary” will most likely go on to replace retiring Sen. Jon Kyl. And with both major candidates expecting serious support from the same suburb, all eyes—and a whole lot of pressure—are on members of the local LDS congregation. 

“Mormon wards are very tight communities,” says Hunter Schwarz, a Latter-Day Saint and former intern in Flake’s Mesa office. “These people go to church together for three hours each week, they visit each other frequently, they go to school together.” 

The whole thing is like a giant Mormon Jerry Springer show.

But political fault lines run through even the most tight-knit congregations, and in some ways the LDS community in north Mesa provides a microcosm for the state’s Republicans. For example, elderly alums of the John Birch Society—an ultra-conservative, anti-Communist group that gained popularity among Mormons during the Cold War—will most likely support Cardon, whose Tea Party message and hard line on immigration resonate with them. Flake, meanwhile, will count on the slightly more moderate country-club set for whom politics is more of a recreational activity, like tennis, than a fire-in-the-belly passion.  

While neither man is going to win a statewide Senate primary with the Mormon vote—only 6 percent of Arizona is LDS—both candidates are counting on a fundraising bonanza and grassroots support in their hometown ward. Two mutual friends of the candidates (speaking off the record to The Daily Beast) say they are concerned that the race could lead to a nasty whisper campaign with religious undertones.  

“If LDS voters in Mesa trust both of these candidates because they know they’re good Mormons… they, or maybe their supporters, could attack each other’s character and commitment to their faith,” says one. “That would turn into some serious drama within the congregation.”  

For now, both campaigns are pledging to play nice. In a statement emailed to The Daily Beast, Flake said, “Wil’s a friend and has been a longtime supporter, and I’m looking forward to a healthy debate about the future of our country.” And Cardon told Politico last week, “I think Jeff and I are both quality gentlemen who will keep it to the issues.”  

But in the meantime, north Mesa’s Mormons will be left to stew about tense dinner parties and uncomfortable church functions. “The irony is that everyone thinks we’re this small, monolithic community,” says one local Latter-Day Saint. “And we’re going at each other.”