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.
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.”
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