November, 16th 2007

Romney and the religion bashing calls

– Liz Mair

I've been talking to a number of people about this issue of calls being made to voters in IA and NH saying not very nice things about Mormonism all day, and here are some thoughts.

First off, I've been pleased to see that the McCain camp was quick in calling for an investigation by the NH AG into the calls. Per a McCain press release:

Today, the McCain New Hampshire Leadership Committee intends to file a complaint with the New Hampshire Attorney General's office seeking a full investigation to determine who was behind the push poll. The Leadership Committee calls on all the other Republican campaigns to join us as parties to this complaint. These tactics are repugnant and despicable and there is no place in New Hampshire politics for push polling or any other negative tactics that engage in personal attacks. It is especially shameful that those responsible would hide behind a push poll to impugn a candidate's faith.

As readers will know, in 2002, in the context of John Sununu's campaign, dodgy-dealing with respect to phone calls became a major issue. It is illegal in NH to do calls without identifying the party on whose behalf they're made (or the candidate being opposed), as seems to have occurred here. Hence, the relevance of an investigation and a complaint being filed in relation to this incident.

Second, I've been less impressed with the Romney camp's swift move to tie all of this to McCain-Feingold. The issue here is one of religious bigotry being shopped to voters-- not of the utility of campaign finance reform, of which I personally am no great fan. And, it's interesting that the Romney camp has moved in this direction so quickly. Sure, they never miss an opportunity to beat up on McCain, so it's not surprising that they're doing it here. Still, it seems as though this whole incident has thus far proved pretty beneficial to Romney. He is now in the victim/underdog role that one of his campaign aides indicated a couple months back could prove helpful to his campaign. He's also been given another prime opportunity to denounce an initiative that has been widely unpopular with conservatives, and make himself out to be the anti-McCain (something that still has a lot of appeal with some members of the GOP base). Despite the fact that it's Romney's religion that's been beat up on here, he's looking like the overall winner from the whole episode.

Third, that fact brings me back to the question of who was behind this. My current thinking is not McCain, unless someone on his campaign staff has quite literally lost their mind and any ability to foresee that way this was likely to play out (exactly as it has). McCain gets nothing by asking people if they think better or worse of him for his military service (the answer, and it's obvious, is that McCain's service is a plus, not a minus, for all but a handful of voters, and no polling needs to be done to reach that conclusion). Meanwhile, McCain isn't in a position to really do anything in Iowa by trying to take down Mitt. And, in New Hampshire, which is less religiously-inclined than Iowa, it's hard to see people caring too much about the beliefs of the LDS Church. Evangelicals are freaked out by Mormonism, yes. But relatively few of them live in NH, and that's where McCain is focusing his energies.

Originally, the point was made about connections between the Giuliani camp and Western Wats, the firm that made the calls in question. But, after the digging Jonathan Martin did last night, it seems that the theory of Giuliani involvement has been put to bed. Besides, there's not much of an argument for Romney supporters moving over to Giuliani, and especially not on the basis of religion. Romney may adhere to a faith regarded as strange by many, but Giuliani seems pretty secular to most people. I'd expect that if Giuliani were behind these calls, they'd focus more on taxes, immigration, and guns (subjects on which Romney has an even-worse record than Rudy). All of these issues are a big deal in NH, the first state where it is expected that Giuliani will truly come out to play. In short, I'd be surprised if the Rudy people were behind this, and I just am not convinced that the McCain team is, either.

But who else benefits from calls following this script being made? Huckabee seems the only option, since he's doing the evangelical thing, and Mormonism freaks out evangelicals, Huckabee's target audience. But somehow, I don't see Huckabee pulling a stunt like this. First off, I'm not sure his campaign has the organization necessary to orchestrate a convoluted, black-arts type scheme like this, and second, I would hazard a guess that making these calls cost some money (which Huck really doesn't have much of). Besides, since Huck is the man who makes no bones about appealing to voters on the basis of faith, and his supporters have similarly shown few qualms about raising theological considerations without any effort at concealment, I'd be surprised if Huck would bother with an assault on Romney's religion via this kind of scheme. (Note that I actually just don't think this kind of thing is in Huck, or his campaign's, nature, full stop).

In short, I don't know who did this. But I don't see a real strong rationale for any of the McCain, Giuliani or Huckabee camps getting involved in this kind of tomfoolery. One reader asked me if I thought this was Thompson. In short, no. No offense to Fred, but I just don't think his campaign's up to the usual variety of attacking these days, let alone exotic efforts like this. Could Romney's team have orchestrated this themselves? That suggestion seems beyond farcical, and not worth much consideration, though in politics, one never knows just what level people will sink to.

In any event, we'll probably find out soon. Phone hijinks are taken seriously in NH, and the AG now has a complaint to run with. I'd expect that to be a top 3 item in that office. It shouldn't take too long to get an answer.

UPDATE: David Freddoso raises something interesting at NRO:

Western Wats, the company making the calls, is based in Orem, Utah. One of its dialers, Amanda Earnshaw, has maxed out to Romney for the primary. The company's founder, Ron Lindorf (he sold it years ago), is noted here as a founder of the BYU Business School.

Does it strike anyone else as strange that this would be the firm hired to make anti-Mormon phone calls?

In short, yes. It also strikes me as strange that when I just ran an FEC search for the name "Welch, Jeffrey" (the name of a Senior VP at Western Wats, I came up with this:



09/30/2007 500.00 27931366119

I don't want to turn into a conspiracy theorist here, but is it too much for me to ask, what the hell is up, here?

UPDATE NO. 2: It appears that Fred thinks Mormon-bashing robo-calls suck, too. He's right, though as ever, a little late to the game.

UPDATE NO 3: It appears that another Western Wats employee donated to Romney. Though not as high level as the Senior VP, or as large a donation as Earnshaw's, this is still relevant. The story gets fishier and fishier...

UPDATE NO 4: Jonathan Martin has details of another call recipient:

Mark Lundberg, Chairman of the Sioux County GOP (IA), also got one of the anti-Romney calls on Wednesday night.

"It was probably the most weird poll I've ever had," Lundberg said in a phone interview today. "There were a lot of questions like, 'If you knew this about Mormonism or Romney.'"

Lundberg, who has not committed to any candidate yet, said it got so bad that it made him more sympathetic to Romney than he has previously been.

(my emphasis added)

So, here's the picture, as it stands. Firm with links to Romney performs series of mean, nasty, Mormon-bashing, religiously-bigoted calls in key primary states. Uses script that makes it look like McCain could be involved. Firm also has links to Giuliani team. Calls do nothing to drum up support for McCain, and in fact make him look really, really bad. Also raise suspicion about Giuliani. Meanwhile, calls generate sympathy for Romney.

This sure doesn't prove that Romney or his team or his supporters were behind the calls, but it does raise some serious questions about what's going on here. I can't wait for the NH AG to get to investigating so we can get an answer here.

UPDATE NO 5: Reluctant though I am to be seen as the one shopping conspiracy theories (so let me state for the record that I am far from convinced that Team Romney, the candidate himself, or his supporters are behind all this-- that would be totally idiotic-- though I just don't get why McCain, Giuliani, or Huckabee would be, or how Fred could be), it is worth noting that this piece from this morning indicates that State Rep. Ralph Watts, a Romney supporter, received one of the calls. This adds yet more mystery to the whole thing. My understanding is that generally when calls like this are put out, people who are, say, public supporters of a candidate whose name will be mentioned are filtered out (pollsters reading this, email me if I'm wrong). This guy's name wasn't.

So, is Western Wats stupid? Or incompetent? Or did the person who commissioned these calls, presuming we're talking a candidate other than Romney, decide it was in their best interest to call a Romney supporter and try to talk him around by beating up on the LDS faith? Or did someone commissioning these calls want a known Romney supporter in public office to get such a call, virtually guaranteeing media coverage? Who knows. But, I repeat, this is all fishy. And becoming almost as engaging as a Tom Clancy novel. Nonetheless, I'm likely heading off for dinner and a movie shortly.