Deep divisions among Nevada Republicans over a $1-billion tax increase pushed by the state's Republican governor are helping to shape the battle between Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida and Ted Cruz of Texas
to win this state's presidential caucuses — the first nominating contest in the West.
Rubio's backers are eagerly eyeing Nevada as they look for an early-voting state the candidate could win. Although Rubio is widely seen as one of the leading contenders for the GOP nomination, the early primary states mostly look unpromising for him.
Cruz, by contrast, leads the polls in Iowa, which holds the first contest of the season on Feb. 1, and is well-positioned in several other conservative states that hold early contests.
With the stakes high here, the two freshman senators are vying to gain the support of a key voting bloc within the state's GOP — members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, who mostly lined up behind fellow Mormon Mitt Romney in the last two election cycles.
Mormons make up only about 4% of the state's population, but their influence in Nevada's Republican caucuses is much greater. In 2008 and 2012, members of the church accounted for nearly a quarter of Republican caucusgoers, entrance polls showed.
Both Cruz and Rubio — who attended an LDS church in Las Vegas in his youth — have enlisted politically prominent members of the church, and now the fault line on taxes that split the state's Republicans this spring and summer has come to the forefront.
Rubio's side includes prominent backers of the tax increase, aimed at expanding the state's budget for schools, which Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval pushed through the GOP-controlled Legislature in May and June. The tax hike, the largest in state history, was strongly opposed by a large portion of the Republicans in the Legislature.
Also among Rubio's backers is Bruce Woodbury, a Mormon and former Clark County commissioner who is so admired in southern Nevada that the I-215 beltway around Las Vegas is named after him.
Four years ago, Woodbury appeared in radio advertisements urging supporters to vote for Romney. He plans a similar effort this cycle for Rubio, working alongside the campaign's state director, Lt. Gov. Mark Hutchison — another prominent Mormon — to build support ahead of the Feb. 23 caucuses.
"An essential factor is winning the election in November," Woodbury said after a recent Rubio rally in a hotel ballroom a short drive from the Las Vegas Strip. "He has all the essentials: a powerful life story, he's moderate — he can appeal to all segments of the electorate."
His son, Boulder City Mayor Rod Woodbury, and two City Council members — all church members — also back Rubio.
Among the leaders of the opposition to the tax increase was Assemblyman Ira Hansen, a Republican who represents Sparks, just east of Reno. Hansen, also a Mormon church member, is now part of Cruz's state leadership team.
"You see it at the national level and here: Cruz folks are much more conservative than Rubio's," said Hansen. "When it comes to social issues, when it comes to tax increases, if you're a conservative — a true conservative — then Ted Cruz is your candidate.
"I think that Mormons and just Republicans in general want a true conservative who will stand for conservative values in Washington, D.C.," he said.
Hansen says Rubio's past support of bipartisan immigration reform, which included a path to citizenship for those in the country illegally, is also a negative for him in the state's caucuses. It's an issue on which Cruz has repeatedly assailed Rubio, saying that the Florida senator supports "amnesty" for those who have violated immigration laws.
Rubio's campaign has two field offices in the state — one in Las Vegas, the other in Reno — and nearly a dozen paid staffers. The Cruz campaign has a similar infrastructure.
Cruz has enlisted Paul Workman, a former bishop in the Mormon church and a member of Romney's 2012 Nevada finance committee, who says his job is to make sure LDS members know about Cruz's record as a conservative.
Cruz "talks about his faith with confidence and how it guides him," Workman said. "There's a real openness to other faiths that he has. It appeals to me and I'm sure other Mormons as well."
At a recent religious round table in Las Vegas hosted by the Cruz campaign, Workman spoke with evangelical Christian pastor Rafael Cruz, the Texas senator's father. The two talked about Mormon doctrine — of salvation, atonement and family — and how to appeal to LDS voters. Workman says he was impressed by the elder Cruz's knowledge of Mormonism, which he says will help bolster the senator's LDS support.
Rubio supporters, however, say Cruz's brand of staunch conservatism will not help the party win in November.
Heidi Wixom, a mother of six, lives a few blocks from a Mormon church in her eastside Las Vegas neighborhood. After rallying behind Romney in the last two elections, she remained torn for much of the summer and fall about which candidate to back. Electability in November was vital in her decision to support Rubio, she said.
"Just being a strong conservative doesn't help the party," she said. "You have to have shown you can work alongside Democrats; even if right now that doesn't seem ideal, it will pay off in the general election."