Yet another Republican has left the party because of Donald Trump.
Jim Bennett, the son of former Sen. Bob Bennett (R-Utah), said Friday that he recently switched his voter registration to independent because the GOP has changed for the worse under its presidential nominee.
“The Republican Party that was near and dear to my heart for most of my adult life bears very little or no resemblance to the party of Trump,” Jim Bennett told MSNBC’s Kate Snow. “You know, people had called me a RINO, a Republican in name only, and I decided that I no longer wanted to be a Republican even in name as long as Donald Trump is heading the ticket.”
Bennett, who is Mormon, was in the news earlier this year when he revealed that his father had spent time before his death apologizing to Muslims for Trump’s comments.
Jim Bennett’s new comments speak to Trump’s struggle in winning over Mormon voters, a group that consistently votes Republican but has been hesitant to support Trump and includes some of his most prominent critics.
Trump acknowledged Thursday that he has “a tremendous problem” winning over Utah voters. During remarks to a room full of evangelical Christian pastors, he called the state “a different place” before asking, somewhat awkwardly, “Is anybody here from Utah?”
“I didn’t think so,” he chuckled.
Trump is currently ahead of Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton in Utah, according to HuffPost Pollster averages of available surveys. She hasn’t given up on the state, however ― her husband, former President Bill Clinton, appeared at a fundraiser there on Thursday.
Trump has clear vulnerabilities in Utah. He did poorly in its Republican caucuses ― Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) received about 69 percent of the vote, compared to Trump’s 14 percent. There’s speculation that newly announced candidate Evan McMullin, a Trump critic who is Mormon, could hurt the GOP nominee in the state by pulling votes from him.
Mormons make up more than 60 percent of the state’s population, and prominent members of the religious have been highly critical of Trump. For example, Mitt Romney, the 2012 Republican presidential nominee, is one of the leaders of the “Never Trump” effort. He has said he plans to write in his wife’s name rather than voting for either major party candidate.
Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), who is also Mormon, did not rule out voting for Trump but blasted the candidate in June for attacking Cruz and for making religiously intolerant statements.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints released a statement in December, after Trump said he wanted to block Muslims from entering the country, that did not refer to the candidate by name but reaffirmed the church’s commitment to religious freedom.
“I think one of the reasons Donald Trump is having so much trouble in Utah is that Mormons culturally identify with a history of persecution, with a history of feeling like religious outsiders,” Bennett said Friday. “And seeing Trump label Muslims as outsiders I think is really reprehensible to people of my faith.”
Bennett said he thinks Trump will still win Utah because “tribal loyalties to the Republican Party are very strong.” But he still thinks Clinton has a shot, which he called “astonishing.” He said he currently doesn’t plan to vote for Clinton, but that his sisters have urged him to.
“This is not Clinton country,” he said. “So the fact ― a Democrat hasn’t won a statewide race in Utah for about 25 years. So the fact that any Democrat is competitive here is remarkable. but the fact that it’s Hillary Clinton demonstrates just how odious most Mormon voters find Donald Trump.”
Jennifer Bendery contributed reporting.
Editor’s note: Donald Trump regularly incites political violence and is a serial liar, rampant xenophobe, racist, misogynist and birther who has repeatedly pledged to ban all Muslims ― 1.6 billion members of an entire religion ― from entering the U.S.