Without Romney Running, Rubio and Bush Make Early Inroads with Nevada Mormons

The LDS community plays a huge role in Nevada’s Republican caucuses, and that vote is undecided heading into 2016 without a Mormon candidate running. Two contenders have the early advantage.

National Journal
Adam Wollner
Add to Briefcase
Adam Wollner
Aug. 17, 2015, 1:01 a.m.

For the first time since Nevada gained coveted early state status in Re­pub­lic­an pres­id­en­tial polit­ics, the state’s siz­able Mor­mon vote is up for grabs — and with it, the Nevada GOP caucuses.

Mitt Rom­ney dom­in­ated the Nevada caucuses in both 2008 and 2012, tak­ing more than half the Re­pub­lic­an vote each time thanks in large part to Mor­mon caucus­go­ers who sup­por­ted him at near-mono­lith­ic 90 per­cent rates. And while Mor­mons only ac­count for roughly 4 per­cent of Nevada’s over­all pop­u­la­tion, they have com­prised one-quarter of GOP caucus­go­ers in the past two pres­id­en­tial years, ac­cord­ing to exit polls.

This year — without Rom­ney, or any oth­er mem­ber of the Church of Lat­ter Day Saints, seek­ing the Re­pub­lic­an pres­id­en­tial nom­in­a­tion — this large, key slice of the Nevada elect­or­ate is avail­able to a broad­er field of can­did­ates. Most cam­paigns are just start­ing to or­gan­ize in the first-in-the-West state, but Marco Ru­bio and Jeb Bush are already mak­ing in­roads with in­flu­en­tial Mor­mon fig­ures and former Rom­ney al­lies.

Next winter, that early work could swing one of the first four states to choose the nom­in­ee.

“Every­body’s try­ing. It’s one of those things where every pres­id­en­tial cam­paign has made a run at try­ing to bring on someone that would be able to help them out with the LDS com­munity,” said Cory Christensen, a Mor­mon who served as the fin­ance dir­ect­or for both of Rom­ney’s cam­paigns in Nevada. “Cer­tainly the two that are do­ing the best at this point would be Ru­bio and Bush. Right now, I’d say they kind of have the jump on every­body else.”

Lt. Gov. Mark Hutchin­son, who once held a lead­er­ship po­s­i­tion in the Mor­mon church, spear­heads Ru­bio’s Nevada team as his state cam­paign chair­man. Hutchin­son and a hand­ful of oth­er loc­al Mor­mon act­iv­ists who have signed on with Ru­bio in re­cent weeks have helped build what Nevada polit­ic­al ana­lyst Jon Ral­ston re­cently called a “po­tent state or­gan­iz­a­tion.” Mike Slanker, a top strategist for Sen. Dean Heller and Gov. Bri­an San­dov­al, who is lead­ing Ru­bio’s Nevada cam­paign, is also well-re­garded in the state.

Ru­bio’s per­son­al ties to Nevada and the Mor­mon Church are well known with­in the com­munity, too. The Flor­ida sen­at­or spent part of his child­hood in Las Ve­gas, where he was briefly a mem­ber of the LDS church be­fore con­vert­ing to Cath­oli­cism. Ru­bio’s cous­in, Mo Denis, is a Demo­crat­ic mem­ber of the Nevada State Sen­ate.

Todd Moody, a Las Ve­gas at­tor­ney who caucused for Rom­ney and hasn’t yet settled on a 2016 can­did­ate, said that he and many oth­er Mor­mons are drawn to Ru­bio be­cause of his fo­cus on fam­ily and con­ser­vat­ive po­s­i­tions on so­cial is­sues like abor­tion. (Earli­er this month, Ru­bio drew at­ten­tion dur­ing the first GOP pres­id­en­tial de­bate by re­stat­ing his op­pos­i­tion to abor­tion even in cases of rape and in­cest.) Moody said that Ru­bio is “con­sist­ently in the top two can­did­ates in the people that I speak with.”

“Of all the can­did­ates, he is the one who seems to talk fam­ily more of­ten,” said Moody, who is lean­ing to­ward sup­port­ing Ru­bio. “He’s the one that I think we re­late to well. At least I do.”

Yet Bush is also court­ing LDS lead­ers. Just last week, the former Flor­ida gov­ernor’s cam­paign an­nounced en­dorse­ments from two Mor­mon sen­at­ors: Heller of Nevada and Sen. Or­rin Hatch of Utah right next-door. Bush’s top Nevada op­er­at­ive, Ry­an Er­win, was a seni­or ad­viser to both of Rom­ney’s cam­paigns in the state.

“In terms of edu­ca­tion, fam­ily val­ues, less gov­ern­ment, strong na­tion­al de­fense — all the things that you hear Bush talk about par­tic­u­larly and Ru­bio to a large ex­tent — I think those are areas that strike a good chord with­in the LDS com­munity,” said Sig Ro­gich, a vet­er­an GOP con­sult­ant who is chair­ing Bush’s fin­ance com­mit­tee in Nevada.

Bush’s and Ru­bio’s early suc­cesses or­gan­iz­ing the Mor­mon com­munity comes partly be­cause they are put­ting in more ef­fort than their pres­id­en­tial rivals. Christensen said while sev­er­al oth­er can­did­ates have the po­ten­tial to ap­peal to Mor­mon voters, Bush and Ru­bio are the only ones “who are ac­tu­ally do­ing what it takes to get them on the ground.”

Most pres­id­en­tial can­did­ates are fo­cused on the states that come ahead of Nevada on the nom­in­at­ing cal­en­dar. Re­pub­lic­an White House hope­fuls have only spent a com­bined 31 days cam­paign­ing in Nevada so far this year, ac­cord­ing to data com­piled in Na­tion­al Journ­al‘s Travel Track­er. That works out to roughly one-tenth of the time they have spent in Iowa and in New Hamp­shire.

Bush, Ru­bio, and Ben Car­son have spent the most days cam­paign­ing in Nevada in 2015.

But without Rom­ney lock­ing down the state early, more cam­paigns are turn­ing their eyes to the state. “In 2008 and 2012, most cam­paigns did not feel like they had the abil­ity to com­pete with Mitt Rom­ney, his cam­paign, and his or­gan­iz­a­tion in Nevada,” said Robert Uithoven, the Nevada state dir­ect­or for Ted Cruz‘s cam­paign, which is plan­ning to an­nounce a lar­ger state-lead­er­ship team soon. “And now, I think with the con­test be­ing wide open and Rom­ney not be­ing on the bal­lot, there are a lot more can­did­ates who feel they can com­pete here.”

Uithoven said that Cruz’s so­cially con­ser­vat­ive views and em­phas­is on pro­tect­ing re­li­gious liberty will help him ap­peal to all voters of faith. Mean­while, Rand Paul‘s cam­paign is also plan­ning to ramp up its ef­forts in the state. The Ken­tucky sen­at­or hopes to tap in­to the liber­tari­an in­fra­struc­ture his fath­er built over two pres­id­en­tial bids, but his team thinks his fo­cus on con­sti­tu­tion­al rights has some Mor­mon ap­peal, too. Rep. Raul Lab­rador, an Idaho Mor­mon who co-chairs the Paul cam­paign’s op­er­a­tion in the West­ern states, is already help­ing with out­reach to LDS voters.

“We feel that Rand has a strong con­nec­tion their ideals and val­ues, so it’s just a mat­ter of get­ting the mes­sage out in­to the com­munity, get­ting them en­gaged in the pro­cess,” said Carl Bunce, a seni­or ad­viser to Paul’s cam­paign.

Wis­con­sin Gov. Scott Walk­er began to form his team in Nevada last week, nam­ing former Gov. Bob List as his state chair­man. And Walk­er also ap­peared with Cruz, Car­son, and Carly Fior­ina at an event in rur­al Nevada over the week­end hos­ted by the state’s at­tor­ney gen­er­al, Adam Lax­alt.

One ques­tion loom­ing over every­one’s Nevada caucus pre­par­a­tions is wheth­er the Mor­mon com­munity will be as out­sized a factor in 2016 as it was when Rom­ney was run­ning. Sev­er­al Re­pub­lic­an strategists pre­dicted the Mor­mon share of caucus­go­ers would shrink to 15 or 20 per­cent next year — not be­cause of a turnout drop but be­cause the pro­spect of a con­tested GOP caucus would boost turnout among oth­er less-re­li­able groups of voters.

Des­pite that pos­sib­il­ity, LDS mem­bers will still be a crit­ic­al group. “It will be dif­fer­ent,” said Bunce, the Paul ad­viser. “There will be a di­min­ished turnout among the LDS pop­u­la­tion but not much.”

Now, even as oth­er can­did­ates start turn­ing more at­ten­tion to Nevada, Bush and Ru­bio hope their en­dorse­ments, cam­paign in­fra­struc­ture, and vis­its will start to trans­late in­to con­crete sup­port among Mor­mon voters, build­ing up a base ahead of the caucus night in six months’ time. LDS mem­ber West Al­len, a Las Ve­gas at­tor­ney who was a staunch Rom­ney sup­port­er, echoed many in say­ing that Bush and Ru­bio are soak­ing up much of the early at­ten­tion — and that he hasn’t yet de­cided who to back.

“They tend to be the ones people talk about, mostly be­cause they’re viewed as those who are thought­ful and who are try­ing to be wise and hon­est,” Al­len said of Bush and Ru­bio.

Yet with such a large Re­pub­lic­an field, and no Mor­mon on the bal­lot, LDS voters aren’t likely to co­alesce around a single can­did­ate again any­time soon.

“I don’t think any of them are Rom­neys, as far as abil­ity and sheer pre­pared­ness,” Al­len said. “But they are their own in­di­vidu­als, and we’ll pick the best of them.”

What We're Following See More »
Health Care Vote Delayed
2 hours ago
Possible Active Shooter at Alabama Military Installation
4 hours ago
Senate Procedural Vote Now Coming on Wednesday
4 hours ago
SCOTUS to Hear Sports Betting Case
5 hours ago

"The U.S. Supreme Court has given new life to New Jersey's challenge to a federal sports betting ban, with the high court announcing Tuesday that it hear an appeal of federal court decisions that have blocked the state's plans. That extends a six-year effort led by Gov. Chris Christie to allow expanded gambling at Monmouth Park." The NFL, NCAA, and other popular sports leagues had opposed the sports betting there and at other New Jersey locations.

More Chemical Weapons Activity Spotted at Syrian Base
6 hours ago

"The Pentagon said Tuesday the United States has seen chemical weapons activity at Syrian air base used in past chemical attack." A Pentagon spokesman confirmed what the White House first said Monday night: that "Bashar Assad appears to be taking some of the same actions he took before a chemical weapons attack on his own people in April."


Welcome to National Journal!

You are currently accessing National Journal from IP access. Please login to access this feature. If you have any questions, please contact your Dedicated Advisor.