Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer launched a flame war with his controversial remark to The Daily Beast Wednesday about how Mitt Romney’s family roots on “a polygamy commune in Mexico” could hurt the Republican candidate politically. The comment—marking the first time a major Democratic officeholder has publicly addressed Mitt Romney’s Mormon faith and the impact that it could have in November—sparked outcries of bigotry on the right, drew a response from the Obama political team, and even filtered down into Montana’s local electoral campaigns.
Bowen Greenwood, executive director of the Montana Republican Party, tried to tie Schweitzer’s comments to incumbent Democratic senator Jon Tester, who is facing a tight reelection bid. “Montana Democrats like Brian Schweitzer and Jon Tester are all such big fans of Obama’s left-wing agenda, they’re willing to say anything to get him reelected. Even things that aren’t true,” Greenwood said. Tester’s office declined comment. (In a subsequent conversation, Greenwood backtracked in his assertion that claim was not “true.” Instead, he said it was “outlandish” and that he has “no personal knowledge of Romney’s great grandfather.”)
Commentary Magazine, a conservative publication, labeled this as “a nasty piece of business” which was “the first assault on Romney’s faith.” Some conservatives have pointed out that President Obama’s father himself was married to more than one woman at the same time. Schweitzer’s comments even drew fire from the left; University of Chicago professor Harold Pollack called the remark idiotic and reprehensible.
“The governor believes exactly what he said: that Romney is in a pickle,” Schweitzer’s senior counsel said. “Romney will probably not choose to highlight his own family's connection to Mexico as a way of reaching out to Hispanics, because that history involves a polygamy colony, which is something that Romney doesn't like to discuss.”
Obama campaign spokesperson Lis Smith denounced Schweitzer’s words. “Attacking a candidate’s religion is out of bounds, and our campaign will not engage in it, and we don’t think others should either.” (The Romney campaign did not respond to repeated requests for comment. Friday afternoon, Romney did tell Fox News that “My dad’s dad was not a polygamist. My dad grew up in a family with a mom and a dad and a few brothers and one sister.”)
But for his part, Schweitzer is standing firm. In a statement to The Daily Beast, the governor’s senior counselor, Eric Stern, said: “The governor believes exactly what he said: that Romney is in a pickle. He’s in serious trouble with Hispanics because he took a crazy, extreme position on immigration during the primary (deport even those who may have come here illegally 50 years ago who have children and grandchildren who are naturalized citizens)…Romney will probably not choose to highlight his own family’s connection to Mexico as a way of reaching out to Hispanics, because that history involves a polygamy colony, which is something that Romney doesn’t like to discuss.”
Romney is likely to become the first Mormon to become a major party nominee for president. In fact, if elected, he would only be the second president in history not to identify as a Protestant. (The other was John F. Kennedy, a Catholic.) Like Catholics in 1960, there is still lingering prejudice against Mormons. According to one recent poll, 22 percent of voters would not cast their ballot for a Mormon. The result is that the Romney campaign and the Republican Party is very sensitive to anti-Mormon prejudice this year. Schweitzer’s remarks, featuring the phrase “polygamy” seven times in one minute while talking about Romney and his faith, was bound to inflame those sensitivities.
Article updated to include additional comments from executive director of the Montana Republican Party, Bowen Greenwood.