Mormon voters: A key bloc is up for grabs in Nevada caucus race

Before Heidi Wixom arrived at her neighborhood high school to cast a caucus vote in each of the last two presidential elections, she already had a steadfast favorite to support.

Mitt Romney’s executive experience -- overseeing the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics and then as Massachusetts governor -- appealed to Wixom. So too did the Mormon faith which she and the candidate share. A mother of six, Wixom knocked on doors and organized phone banks for Romney in living rooms throughout this city’s suburbs.

“Now, I’m just not seeing that candidate out there who is similar to Gov. Romney,” says Wixom, who lives a few blocks from a Mormon temple. “Faith is not the only thing I look for in a candidate, but it’s important.”

In Nevada, Mormons constitute roughly 4% of the population and a larger share of those who vote in the state’s Republican presidential caucuses, which are among the first contests in the presidential nominating campaign.

During the 2008 and 2012 campaigns, entrance polls showed roughly a quarter of GOP caucus-goers were Mormon. In 2008, Romney won nearly all of them, and he carried 88% four years later.

This time around, with more than a dozen Republicans seeking the party’s nomination, strong support from Mormon voters, if they come together as a bloc, could be a significant boost.

“The Mormon Church has always been a reliable voting bloc that can organize informally and will turn out in a caucus here,” said David Fott, a professor of political science at the University of Nevada Las Vegas. “Romney was the go-to candidate for LDS members. But with all the candidates running this time, that vote support from the Mormon Church could be split.”

Aides to Romney insist that for now, he will not endorse any of the presidential hopefuls. But several candidates, particularly former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, are laying groundwork for winning support from the state's Mormons. It starts with scooping up Romney allies.

Rubio’s state director, Lt. Gov. Mark Hutchison, a longtime local attorney and a Mormon, had Romney’s endorsement last year when he ran for his job in a competitive GOP primary.

“The LDS vote is really important, and that’s been demonstrated repeatedly. I’ll do all I can to encourage members of the LDS Church to support Marco Rubio,” said Hutchison, who plans to host a meet-and-greet with the Florida senator at his home here later this month.

Rubio lived in Nevada for six years as a child and still has family in the area, noted Hutchison. (Rubio’s cousin, state Sen. Mo Denis, is a Democrat who represents a Las Vegas district and is also Mormon.)

As for Bush, much of his operation here is being spearheaded by a team of aides who led Romney’s campaign in 2008 and 2012.

Assemblyman Lynn Stewart, a former high school teacher of 34 years, introduced Bush at a recent town hall-style event in Henderson, Nev., and called his efforts to reform education “enviable.”

“As a Republican, I think he’s best fit to win in a general election,” said Stewart, who is Mormon and was an ardent supporter of Romney in both 2008 and 2012. “From talking to people in the Mormon Church,” it appears “to be a two-person race for support” between Rubio and Bush, he said.

Scott Taylor, an accountant and former GOP state party treasurer, is another staunch former Romney supporter who is torn on which candidate to support this time around.

“I think for church members, it’s about electability of candidates, who can win and be representative of strong conservative values, which are also LDS values,” Taylor said.

“When you look at the field,” he said, “it’s wide open.”

For more on the 2016 campaign, follow @KurtisALee.

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