By Katie Glueck
June 18, 2016
In the battleground state of Nevada, the presumptive GOP nominee isn't winning over a constituency that will be key to his success there.
Donald Trump will head to Nevada on Saturday, but some of the most committed local Republicans won’t be rolling out the welcome mat for his Las Vegas rally.
Nevada Mormons, a relatively small but influential bloc within the state party, are struggling to get comfortable with the GOP nominee. And in contrast to previous years — especially 2012, when fellow Mormon Mitt Romney led the Republican ticket — many leaders in the Latter-day Saints community have no interest in activating their extensive networks and grassroots infrastructure on his behalf.
The result: Trump is facing an organizational disadvantage compared to previous GOP candidates, as well as an enthusiasm gap with an important GOP constituency in a key swing state.
“Usually our people are very involved in being engaged, trying to get other people engaged,” said Cory Christensen, a GOP operative active in the LDS community, who hasn’t decided yet whether to support Trump. “Some very significant, key people that are seen as political leaders—that aren’t elected officials but everybody knows they are involved, and look to them for advice—those people are not making the calls, doing the work, selling people on the fact that they need to be with him. That’s where the big impact would be felt.”
Mormons comprise only around 4 percent of the state’s population, according to a 2014 Pew study, but there’s a significant LDS concentration in Clark County, Nevada’s population hub. Many of the most prominent Republican leaders in the state, including Sen. Dean Heller and Lt. Gov. Mark Hutchison, are Mormon, and the LDS community typically has considerable reach in driving overall Republican turnout, operatives on the ground say.
“That is an essential part of the Republican coalition in Nevada, and Republicans don’t win without enthusiastic support from the LDS community in Nevada,” said a Nevada conservative leader who is not affiliated with the LDS church. “If he is unable to engender the kind of enthusiasm he needs from that community, he’s not going to win. You need that infrastructure. You need those folks out there actively excited about it as well.”
Heller has said he is “vehemently opposed” to Trump, while Hutchison, who endorsed Marco Rubio in the Nevada caucuses, has made lukewarm comments about backing the nominee. But even many prominent Mormons who say they are voting for Trump have little appetite for helping him tap into their community and to broader Republican circles.
“I plan, at this point, to vote for him. That’s maybe the extent of it,” said Bruce Woodbury, a prominent Clark County Republican and leader in the Mormon community, who was very active on behalf of Romney. Woodbury, who has been a delegate to the last six national conventions, won’t be a delegate in Cleveland.
Trump’s fraught relationship with the LDS community starts at the top: Romney has been one of the GOP’s most persistent and vocal critics of the nominee. During the GOP primary, Trump questioned the sincerity of Romney’s faith and consistently lost parts of the country with heavy Mormon populations — like eastern Idaho and Utah.
Recent general election polls out of heavily Mormon, deep-red Utah have newly underscored Trump’s broader challenge with the community—a community that is troubled by, among other things, his hostile language toward Hispanic immigrants (many Mormons do missions to South America) and his waffling on social issues. The LDS church, which itself suffered much discrimination in the past, released a statement in December saying, "The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is neutral in regard to party politics and election campaigns. However, it is not neutral in relation to religious freedom." The statement came as Trump pushed a proposal for a temporary ban on Muslim migration.
According to the recent most recent Utah poll, Trump is deadlocked with Hillary Clinton in Utah — in a state that hasn’t voted Democratic for president since 1964.
“I cannot go there,” said Heidi Wixom, a Nevada Mormon and GOP activist well-respected in the community, of voting for Trump. Pointing to the list of incendiary comments he has made about other minority groups, she continued, “Belonging to a church that has felt persecution, you wonder, will his rhetoric continue on? What happens to a group of people he sees aren’t supportive of him? What would he do to them?”
Trump’s Mormon issue may be felt acutely in a swing state like Nevada. Despite twice voting for Barack Obama, it’s still considered a November battleground. Trump ran well there in the Nevada caucuses but he’ll need an energized base to push him over the finish line. Enthusiastic LDS backing alone won’t be enough to win the state—as Romney demonstrated—but the chilly reception Trump is receiving from top community leaders could help ensure that Nevada stays blue.
Wixom said that she spoke with around 40 fellow LDS Republicans in Nevada on Thursday. Five were enthusiastic Trump supporters, seven said they could never back him, and the rest, she said, were holding their noses and preparing to vote for him—but won’t do any organizing for him.
“Nevada LDS people are not going to say ‘support,’ they’re going to say ‘vote,’” she said. “They’re not supporting at large. They’re tolerating and voting. They’re not going to be putting Trump signs in the yards, they’re not going to be rallying around phone calls, they’re not going to help with grassroots efforts.”
But it’s still early, stressed Ira Hansen, a Mormon Republican assemblyman and the assistant majority floor leader, adding that he expects the community to eventually embrace Trump—at least enough to help him over the finish line. That’s what Hansen did after his favored candidate, Ted Cruz, dropped out.
“I think we’ll find, when push comes to shove, his platform comes out, a lot of people will rally around, in the LDS community and elsewhere,” Hansen said, noting that a solid vice presidential pick and more details on Supreme Court choices could further smooth that path.
He went on to add, “It’s way premature to start determining what people are going to start doing in August, September, October. The reality is, we haven’t had a convention, we don’t know who the picks are going to be as far as vice president, the Supreme Court, a lot of things that could make a dramatic turnaround.”
A spokeswoman for the Trump campaign did not respond to a request for comment and questions about Trump’s Mormon outreach efforts.
Plenty of Mormon leaders are adamant that even if Trump eventually gets their votes, he won’t get much of their time.
“I’m most likely to vote Trump,” Christensen said. “But I won’t be putting in the blood, sweat and tears like I have with Romney the last several cycles, with McCain. I don’t see a scenario where I do anything but vote for him.”
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