PHOENIX – For Chris Udall, that fact that GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney is a fellow Mormon was “just the icing on the cake” when he decided to donate $250 to his campaign.
“I talk to a lot of friends of mine and relatives who are really into other candidates, so we’re not a homogenous bunch and don’t support someone strictly because of religion,” said Udall, a Mesa resident who is executive director of the Agri-Business Council of Arizona. “My first reason for supporting Governor Romney is because of his private sector experience. I think we need a private sector president.”
While fundraising has tightened of late, Romney has a strong lead so far among Arizonans who have opened their wallets in support. And donations from residents of Mesa and Gilbert, cities with large Mormon populations, are a big part of that, according to a Cronkite News Service review of Federal Election Commission data.
Arizonans had donated $1.1 million to the former Massachusetts governor’s campaign through the end of January, according to FEC data. That’s far ahead of the $333,000 donated to Ron Paul, $169,000 to Newt Gingrich and $46,000 to Rick Santorum.
President Barack Obama’s campaign had received $756,000 from Arizonans through January.
Through the quarter ending Dec. 31, the latest data listing individual donors, about a third of Romney’s contributions in the state had come from Mesa and Gilbert. Residents of Mesa had given the most to Romney – $253,000 – among Arizona cities and towns, outpacing contributions from residents of Phoenix, who had donated $198,000, Tucson, who had donated $183,000, and Scottsdale, who had donated $122,000.
Gilbert was next for Romney, with $87,000 in donations through Dec. 31.
“It’s probably a fair assumption to say that there’s some sort of what you call Mormon pride at play in terms of where the money is coming from in regards to Mitt Romney,” said Shane Wikfors, communications director for the Arizona Republican Party.
“What it really tells me is that Romney has a stronger organization than anyone else here,” said Bruce Merrill, a political scientist and pollster with Arizona State University’s Morrison Institute for Public Policy.
“There’s a lot of Mormons here, a lot of prominent, well-to-do Mormons, and so to me it simply shows that Romney has had a much larger and stronger organization,” Merrill added.
Three Mormon state lawmakers from Mesa, Republican Reps. Cecil P. Ash and Steve Court and Republican Sen. Rich Crandall, donated $2,400, $250 and $250, respectively, to Romney’s campaign. Records also showed that Romney received $2,000 from former ASU and current Arizona Cardinals tight end Todd Heap, who is a Mormon from Mesa.
Pointing to Romney’s business experience as the reason for his support, Ash said he knows Mormons who are for and against the candidate. “To me, religion is a non-issue,” he said.
“The issue is who can beat Barack Obama and who has the skills to be president,” Ash said. “But because I share a religion, I don’t have a fear about him that others do who have a fear of Mormonism who thinks our teachings are crazy or fables.”
Through Dec. 31, the largest share of Paul’s donations, $55,000, had come from Phoenix, followed by Tucson, with $32,000, Mesa, with $31,000, and Scottsdale, with $25,000. With $24,000, Scottsdale residents accounted for the largest share of donations to Gingrich, followed by Phoenix with $16,000.
Santorum’s campaign had received only $18,000 from Arizonans through Dec. 31, two-thirds of it from residents of Paradise Valley and Scottsdale.
Jennifer Steen, an ASU assistant professor of political science, said the numbers don’t show anything that isn’t already known – “that rich people live in Scottsdale and Mormons live in Mesa and Gilbert and one of these candidates is a Mormon and is enjoying Mormon support.”
Reports for January showed a much tighter picture in Arizona, with individuals donating $65,000 to Gingrich, $62,000 to Romney, $49,000 to Paul and $27,000 to Santorum during the month.
Merrill said change reflects the state of the race overall.
“I think the reason for the tightening is the same reason why you see it nationwide: because candidates like Santorum are gaining ground on Romney,” he said.
Obama’s campaign received $80,000 from Arizona during January.
Luis Heredia, executive director of the Arizona Democratic Party, noted that while Obama has received less money than Romney from the state it has come from more overall donors – around 1,400 for Obama to around 1,050 for Romney, according to FEC records.
“That shows me that the president has received most of his campaign funding from small donors like you and I,” Heredia said.
Arizona donations through Jan. 31:
• Romney: $1.1 million
• Obama: $756,000
• Paul: $333,000
• Gingrich: $169,000
• Santorum: $46,000
Source: Federal Election Commission