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
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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.”

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