Politics & Policy

Nevada Is Rubio’s Firewall, but Cruz Could Tear It Down

Rubio speaks at a rally in Las Vegas, December 14, 2015. (Justin Sullivan/Getty)

Las Vegas — Marco Rubio is going all in to win Nevada.

Though the Florida senator has eschewed the idea that he needs to hunker down in any particular state, his campaign has quietly and steadily poured resources into the Silver State, where chaos and dismal turnout rule the caucuses.

Rumors of the Rubio campaign’s weak ground game in Iowa and New Hampshire have led many to conclude that his strategists don’t believe he needs an early-state victory to remain competitive as the primary season moves into March. But that narrative overlooks the reality on the ground here in Nevada, where his team has crafted the grassroots campaign that’s missing elsewhere. The result, according to more than a dozen Nevada GOP operatives and state officials, is the most organized and impressive operation of the Republican field.

“Rubio’s path to the first three states is small,” says one Republican state official. “It’s obvious that his campaign sees Nevada as his firewall.”

RELATED: Ted Cruz’s View of the Race: Iowa Locked Up, Immigration at the Fore, and a Looming Battle with Marco

Talk of Rubio’s Nevada ground game has been muted for good reason: Few candidates have invested resources in the state, and Rubio has benefited. Donald Trump has some paid staff but little ground presence. Chris Christie’s first Nevada appearance came during last Tuesday’s debate in Las Vegas. Although Jeb Bush has built an impressive operation in the state and, along with Rubio, has been courting Nevada’s sizable Mormon population for months, sources say it is now Ted Cruz who is nipping at Rubio’s heels.

With the ability to make inroads in the Mormon community and in Las Vegas, where he lived until he was in eighth grade, and with a campaign strategy centered on caucus training and voter turnout, Rubio is positioned for a strong showing on February 23. And yet, slowly but surely, a consensus has emerged among the Nevada political class: Although Rubio may not be worried about being eclipsed by Cruz now, those days are numbered.

RELATED: Rubio vs. Cruz: The Fight for Conservatism

As veteran Nevada political reporter Jon Ralston puts it, “I think it’s fair to say we’ll be looking at a Rubio-and-Cruz proxy battle pretty soon.”

Cruz has now staffed up in all 17 counties and is the only candidate with campaign chairmen in each. When Rubio set off for Iowa immediately after Tuesday’s debate in Las Vegas, Cruz stayed behind, hosting a rally in the ballroom where Rubio had gathered supporters two months earlier.

Rubio’s team here is led by Mike Slanker, the Nevada strategist who ran Governor Brian Sandoval’s landslide gubernatorial wins in 2010 and 2014 as well as Senator Dean Heller’s long-shot win in 2012. His campaign chairman is Lieutenant Governor Mark Hutchison, Nevada’s most prominent Mormon, whose aggressive outreach has helped Rubio sew up LDS support across the state, a crucial demographic that in 2012 made up 25 percent of the caucus vote and helped Mitt Romney win handily here.

RELATED: How Rubio Could Foil Cruz’s Plan to Unite Conservatives

“We’ve been rolling out endorsements since July. I just finished a rural swing — eleven counties,” Hutchison says. “We’re doing the same thing with Rubio as we’ve done to win statewide. We know what to do. We know how to win.”

Rubio is one of the only candidates with personal ties to an early state, and he mentions often that he has more family in Nevada than he does in Miami. But according to those interviewed, a Rubio victory, if it happens, will result from an organization acutely tailored to the Nevada political landscape. The premium on campaign infrastructure here is higher than in any other early state: In 2012, an abysmally low number of voters — 32,894 — made it to the caucuses, and this year the rules of the complicated system are changing once more, making a candidate’s popular support meaningless if their voters, put simply, don’t know how to vote. The caucus system was instituted here only in 2008.

#share#“This isn’t Iowa, where you’ve got seven generations of caucus-goers living in the same neighborhood who have grown up with this in their blood,” says Adam Jones, president of the Nevada branch of Americans for Prosperity. “Caucuses are still new for us, and Nevada is a transient state. You have to educate people. That’s where I think Rubio could win.”

That history makes the outcome of the Nevada caucuses nearly impossible to predict, but Rubio plans to use it to his advantage. His team’s strategy was on full display Wednesday morning when, at 7:30, some 20 Clark County residents gathered for caucus training in Dona Maria Tamales restaurant in Las Vegas. Rubio’s caucus director, Daniel Stewart, leads the training, fielding questions from attendees about time, locations, and procedure. It’s a familiar rundown for Stewart: He’s been leading these trainings almost every week since the beginning of October.

RELATED: Can We Trust Rubio on Immigration?

Raising his hand at one point is Otto Merida, president of the Nevada Latin Chamber of Commerce, who endorsed Jeb Bush earlier this year. He asks about transportation on February 23.

“I’ve participated in the caucuses before, but they’ve changed it this year,” Merida tells National Review after the event. He says Bush organized one caucus training earlier this month, but Merida wasn’t able to make it. “I see Rubio’s people all the time out there. They’ve called me seven or eight times in the last few weeks, and, you know, it makes a difference.” He says if Bush isn’t able to catch fire by the caucuses, Rubio is his second choice.

“I think Rubio has a very good chance at winning here,” he says. “They’re organized, they’re gathering the forces. . . . I think he’s taking his chances here.”

RELATED: Rubio’s Weak Ground Game Angers Iowa Republicans

When phone-banking, Rubio-campaign volunteers begin their pitches by asking voters not whether they are supporting Rubio but whether they know how to caucus. In one phone call, a voter says he is not planning on voting for Rubio. “Well, all right, thank you for letting me know,” the volunteer says. “I’d love to make sure you have all the information you need to caucus, though. Do you have a moment?”

This is where, for now, the Cruz team’s strategy differs. In their own voter-ID calls one Thursday evening, volunteers do not mention the caucus system at all. Instead, when a voter says he isn’t supporting Cruz, one volunteer presses, “Okay, can you tell me a bit about why not?”

Robert Uithoven, Cruz’s Nevada state director — he ran Adam Laxalt’s upset win for the attorney-general post in 2014 — says, “Rubio has done the most work here, but I think we have the most passion. . . . The intensity of our supporters is significantly higher.”

RELATED: Cruz vs. Rubio — A Better GOP Race

Much of Cruz’s initial rise in Nevada followed the departure of Wisconsin governor Scott Walker from the race in September. Walker had spent a lot of time in the state during his short-lived bid, racking up endorsements that have now gone to Cruz, including Nevada Assembly Majority Whip Jim Wheeler, who had served as Walker’s state co-chair. (Walker’s other campaign co-chair, former Nevada governor Bob List, endorsed Rubio.) That momentum has continued to build.

On Thursday morning, while Rubio volunteers were making phone calls and working doors, Cruz was rallying supporters, about 320 of them, in the gated community of Siena Monte. Over the sea of “Ted Cruz for President” posters and T-shirts, his voice boomed: “God bless Nevada.”

The wheels are in motion for a competitive contest between the two freshman senators. But not lost on either camp is Trump’s presence in the race.

Can Cruz’s team build the infrastructure to match the fanfare? This is where Rubio still maintains a sharp edge over Cruz, detectable by a mere glance at both candidates’ southern Nevada headquarters. On a Thursday evening, Rubio’s is packed with twelve Nevadans making phone calls, their faces featured in framed photographs along the walls as “top volunteers.” A few doors over, Cruz’s space is bare, with one box still unpacked and a stack of chairs folded against the wall. His Nevada political director, David McGowan, says the campaign doesn’t plan to begin caucus trainings until the new year. “But we’ll be doing them twice a week. When we’re making phone calls, all we’re hearing is Cruz, Cruz, Cruz, and maybe a little Trump. We’ll make sure they know where to go come February 23.”

“If Cruz starts running an operation like Rubio’s out here, it’s going to be interesting to watch,” says Erik Jimenez, legislative specialist at Argentum Partners, a lobbying firm in Reno. “Rubio takes Nevada personally. This is his shot to win an early primary. . . . If Cruz can catch up, it’s difficult to know where he goes from there.”

#related#The wheels are in motion for a competitive contest between the two freshman senators. But not lost on either camp is Trump’s presence in the race. Though ground games and organization define sound political strategy here, and Trump has little to speak of in Nevada, it may not matter, according to Ralston. “I’ve been saying this all along,” he says. “Trump could get on Twitter the morning of February 23, tweet out caucus locations, and have people show up in droves. It could turn the whole thing on its head.”

Another challenge for Rubio, if he is coming into Nevada without a win in the early states, is the question of momentum, something on which he and his strategists have put a lot of emphasis.

“Can Rubio take three non-wins into Nevada and still win here?” asks Uithoven, Cruz’s state director. For Rubio’s path to nomination, the answer to that question may matter greatly.

— Elaina Plott is a William F. Buckley Fellow in Political Journalism at the National Review Institute.

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