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Nevada Senate candidate Laxalt is courting the Latter-day Saint vote

Some of the closest races in the country this year are in Nevada, and candidates want Latter-day Saints to turn out

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Michelle Budge, Deseret News

If you could have peered into one of the luxury boxes lining the Las Vegas Raiders’ Allegiant Stadium on Oct. 8, you would have found former Raider and current Utah Congressman Burgess Owens, seated with a who’s who of GOP leaders who also happen to be members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

The group included Republican National Committee chair, and niece to Mitt Romney, Ronna McDaniel, Fox News contributor and former Utah Congressman Jason Chaffetz, former U.S. national security adviser Robert C. O’Brien and former deputy political director of the Trump White House Gregory Smith. They were gathered to cheer on Brigham Young University — the alma mater of McDaniel, Chaffetz and Smith — in its gridiron fight against the University of Notre Dame, but they were also in Nevada to show their support for Republican U.S. Senate candidate Adam Laxalt. 

Smith posted a picture the next day showing the group at the game, accompanied by local Republican congressional candidate April Becker and former political director for the Trump White House Brian Jack. The caption read, “all discussing how great of a U.S. Senator @AdamLaxalt will be for the state of Nevada.” 

Laxalt, while not a member of the church, had planned earlier that day to engage in fundraising and outreach activity among the Latter-day Saint community. Although the plans were canceled over a scheduling conflict with the Trump rally in Reno, Laxalt’s desire to reach out to Latter-day Saint voters in the community highlights the closeness of the race in the silver state. 

At 6% of the population, Latter-day Saints make up the second largest religious voting bloc in Nevada, and have nearly double the congregations of any other religious group. Despite their minority status, strong political involvement can make Latter-day Saints a key constituency in determining the outcome of close elections, said David Campbell, professor of political science at the University of Notre Dame and author of “Seeking the Promised Land: Mormons and American Politics”, with John Green of the University of Akron and Quin Monson of Brigham Young University.

Though the church has issued statements declaring itself strictly “neutral in matters of party politics,” it encourages church members to “engage in the political process in an informed and civil manner, respecting the fact that members of the church come from a variety of backgrounds and experiences and may have differences of opinion in partisan political matters.”

And in a race as close as Laxalt’s, Latter-day Saints’ willingness to mobilize could potentially help decide the campaign’s fate and, as a result, a Republican majority in the U.S. Senate. With the Senate divided 50-50, the stakes couldn’t be much higher. Despite the expectation of a “red wave”, following the historical trend for off-year elections, it looks like a Senate majority could come down to just a few states.  

“This race is the key to the Senate majority,” Laxalt said in a phone call with the Deseret News. “I think everyone knows it’s the top race in America right now.”

Nevada is one of four “toss up” races in the Senate, along with Georgia, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, according to the The Cook Political Report, with analysts saying that Laxalt’s opponent, Catherine Cortez Masto, is the most vulnerable Democrat in the Senate. 

As Nevada’s former attorney general, Laxalt has focused his campaign on rising crime, as well as inflation and border security — issues that have affected Nevada as much, or more, than most states. This approach has seen some success, including with Latino voters, whose support for Masto has dropped below Latino support for Biden in 2020. Recent polls have shown Laxalt with a slight lead over Masto among the general population.

The Masto campaign did not respond to request for comment. But in an email the national director of Latter-day Saints for Biden-Harris, Rob Taber, accused Laxalt of embracing “the worst elements of MAGA extremism,” while praising Sen. Masto for “working to reopen our schools and businesses, lower health care costs, and make the U.S. more self-reliant in energy and manufacturing.”

With House races in and around Las Vegas also in a dead heat, it looks like the state could possibly go from having five Democrats and one Republican in Congress, to the exact opposite.

Mark Robertson, the Republican candidate for Nevada’s 1st Congressional District, is running in a tight race against five-term Democratic incumbent Dina Titus. He says the campaign’s success so far is the result of broad community support from numerous Christian groups, the Republican Jewish Coalition, law enforcement officers and in particular, the Latter-day Saint community. 

I do believe that the Latter-day Saint community was behind me and did have an impact, an oversized impact, on my campaign,” said Robertson, who is himself a Latter-day Saint. 

Democrat-led redistricting in 2020 moved parts of inner-city Las Vegas into the 3rd and 4th districts in a gamble to shore up Democratic Reps. Susie Lee and Steven Horsford. The move, however, made the 1st District competitive for Republicans for the first time in more than a decade, with Robertson’s district now containing the more conservative community of Boulder City, as well as Henderson, the second largest city in Nevada, which has more than 30 Latter-day Saint congregations in the area.

The Titus campaign did not respond to a request for comment.

“I won the primary without doing any television or radio ads. I didn’t even send mailers to people’s homes,” Robertson said. “But I did meet and greets, probably close to a thousand meet and greets in people’s homes. And I would suspect that half of those meet and greets were in the homes of Latter-day Saints who introduced me to neighbors.”

The church doesn’t endorse political candidates, and it prohibits the use of local church facilities, membership records or email lists for political or other solicitation purposes, according to a church statement. While remaining neutral in matters of party politics, the church encourages voting and civic participation.

Campbell says the data is clear: Latter-day Saints are “definitely” more politically active than the average American. Not only in terms of voter turnout, but in campaign participation as well. Communication through personal networks more than makes up for the restrictions on sharing political views from the pulpit.

“As a group, Latter-day Saints, they kind of have in their DNA the ability, the skills, in order to be involved in a campaign. So, they’re often a very important resource for candidates,” Campbell said, referring to skills gained serving missions and participating in volunteer opportunities for the church. “It’s not just that they vote Republican, it’s that they will show up and work on behalf of a campaign.”

However, the fact that politicians can’t address congregations directly does pose a challenge for Republicans and Democrats trying to capture Latter-day Saint votes. Candidates can get around this, Campbell said, by trying to invoke language or symbols that Latter-day Saints can relate to or by holding targeted events outside the church context.

Laxalt said he had planned to highlight his consistent support of Latter-day Saint values at last Saturday’s “Faith and Freedom Rally,” which would have featured prominent Republicans who are members of the church, such as McDaniel and Chaffetz.

The candidate’s website features family photos and, in a scene most family-focused voters might identify with, includes a video of his family gathered to watch “Star Wars.” 

“I ran on being someone that was going to stand up for conservative values, someone that would fight for things like religious liberty,” Laxalt said, referencing the multiple religious liberty cases fought by his office when he was attorney general.  

Polling suggests that American Latter-day Saints, particularly in the West, are more inclined to vote Republican. But church members have been encouraged by leaders to study issues and make a decision on how to vote based on their own best judgement.

“I feel very strongly about the idea that our faith doesn’t dictate our vote,” said Christopher D. Cunningham, a Latter-day Saint living in Las Vegas and the managing editor of Public Square magazine. Cunningham, who plans to vote for Masto this fall, says that his decision is informed by the values he holds as a Latter-day Saint, and that despite identifying as a Democrat, he would vote for a Republican candidate if they were to reflect those values.

“For me, I am a Latter-day Saint first, and so then that implicates everything about the way I see the world, about my values, about the role I see for government. And then from there I am trying to find the best candidate based on my values,” he said. Cunningham, however, assumes he’s in the minority and that most of his co-religionists in the area will break for Laxalt.

One of the nation’s most influential Nevadans of the last half-century was the late Democratic Sen. Harry Reid, who was also a Latter-day Saint. In 2007, Reid spoke at church-sponsored BYU about the intersection of his faith and politics. “It is not uncommon for members of the church to ask how I can be a Mormon and a Democrat,” he said. “I say that my faith and political beliefs are deeply intertwined. I am a Democrat because I am a Mormon, not in spite of it.”

Robertson also attributes his political beliefs to his Latter-day Saint faith, saying it is a driving force behind his decision to run for Congress and that it informs his conservative values.

However, despite Latter-day Saints being one of the most conservative religious groups in the U.S., Republican politicians should not take their vote for granted, said Campbell. Latter-day Saints hold views that are distinct from the rest of the Republican Party, he said, referencing their nuanced positions on issues such as immigration. 

“If I was a Republican, I would be highly conscious of the fact that you cannot assume that members of the LDS church think like every other Republican,” Campbell said. “They’re conservative in their politics, but they’re actually very moderate in other ways, so they don’t particularly like strident rhetoric, for example.”

This is the advice Campbell would give Republican politicians trying to court the Latter-day Saint vote, like Laxalt in Nevada, and gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake and Senate candidate Blake Masters in Arizona, where Latter-day Saints also make up about 6% of the population. Lake and Masters both won their party’s nomination partly due to their strong personalities and Trump-like tone. As AG, Laxalt was co-chair of Trump’s Nevada reelection campaign and, in the aftermath of the election, participated in lawsuits questioning the validity of the state’s results.

“The Trump era, that’s where we begin to see some wavering in that loyal Republicanness,” Campbell said, referring to Utah’s lukewarm embrace of Trump in the 2016 election and Utah voters’ willingness to consider then-independent presidential candidate Evan McMullin who is now challenging Republican Sen. Mike Lee in Utah.

According to Campbell, this is something Republican candidates in the West, like Laxalt, would be wise to remember. Because while Laxalt was on stage with the former president just south of Reno, one of his key constituencies was likely at, or watching, or shouting noncurse words about, that BYU game on the other side of the state.