PAHRUMP, Nev. — In a state where 28 percent of the residents are Hispanic, in a race where two of the leading candidates have Hispanic roots, Republican presidential hopefuls have spent little time in the run up to Tuesday's Nevada caucuses appealing directly to Latinos.
While Hispanic outreach was a cornerstone of the campaigns pursued here by Democratic candidates Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernard Sanders last week, Republican Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Marco Rubio of Florida are more focused on a broader swath of voters they consider likely to deliver the delegates they need.
Cruz, for instance, rallied his troops 50 miles from Vegas on Sunday in the deeply conservative but sparsely populated Nye County, home to legalized prostitution, the Nevada Test Site and the proposed Yucca Mountain nuclear waste dump.
In North Las Vegas meanwhile, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., rolled out a long list of endorsements from Nevada's political elite and emphasized his own humble Las Vegas roots as a child, a significant but little-known part of his biography that includes connections to the city's hotel workers as well as the influential Mormon community.
"It was a place that allowed us to find the American dream all over again," Rubio said, recounting his family's move from Miami to Las Vegas in the summer of 1979, when his father was hired as a bartender at Sam's Town and his mother was later hired as a maid at the Imperial Palace. "That's not just my story, that's our story," he said.
To be sure, that narrative could connect to the many people, particularly Hispanics who work in the hospitality industry here. It also is a big contrast to GOP front-runner Donald Trump, who has made getting tough on immigration a crux of his campaign and whose name emblazons a luxury hotel just off the Las Vegas Strip.
Meanwhile, Cruz told his rally in Pahrump that, "I'm thrilled to be surrounded by lovers of liberty," some of whom, not having to worry about a Secret Service detail, displayed firearms openly at the event in the sun-drenched Desert Oasis parking lot.
At a press availability before the rally, Cruz said his Hispanic background was a "shared" story for people across demographic lines.
"You know, when I ran for Senate in Texas I was very proud to earn 40 percent of the vote of Hispanic voters in Texas. We have had tremendous support in the Hispanic community and listen, much of that is a shared family story. When my father fled Cuba in 1957, he came to America he was just 18. He couldn't speak English. He had nothing," Cruz said.
He did not mention that connection during his stump speech.
Rubio's team, meanwhile, highlighted endorsements from Lt. Gov. Mark Hutchison, Sen. Dean Heller and Reps. Cresent Hardy and Mark Amodei at a rally at the Texas Station hotel and casino, as well as celebrity supports such as "Pawn Stars" reality television star Nick Harrison and Donnie Wahlberg, an actor and former New Kids on the Block performer who emphasized that Rubio would be the first Republican he would ever vote for president.
Rubio's connection to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints may well provide him with a tool to turn out Republicans in a caucus that is not expected to attract anywhere near the 80,000 Democrats who showed up on Feb. 20 to give Clinton a 53-47 percent victory.
While his family was living in Vegas, the Rubios joined the LDS Church, and Rubio was baptized into it. They later returned to their Catholic faith, but that connection to Mormonism provides the senator with a common ground with those voters.
Mormons make up only about 5 percent of Nevada's population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, but their influence in politics is heavy here. Hutchison, Heller and Hardy are all Mormon. Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, another Rubio supporter and a Mormon himself, has been in Nevada for days stumping for Rubio, including at the Democratic caucus precinct of Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, another Mormon who holds statewide office, and at Cruz's Desert Oasis event.
On Monday, Rubio scored the endorsement of the nation's highest ranking Mormon, Senate Pro Tempore President Orrin G. Hatch, R-Utah.
Heller, who previously supported former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and threw his support to Rubio after Bush dropped out on Feb. 20, said the Mormon vote is small but important.
"The Latter Day Saint vote isn't a real large number, let's say it's 10 percent of the population," Heller told Roll Call. Maybe it's a little bit higher for a Republican primary. But even at that small number, they'll vote. So that's why it's so critical. They might not be an overwhelming number or size of the population, but they're committed to participate and believe it's their civic duty."
Hutchison backed that sentiment up. "Well, we think Sen. Rubio's message is broad-based and appeals to a lot of voters across Nevada and will not target any one particular group. But I will tell you this: Sen. Rubio's emphasis on faith and family resonates very strongly within the LDS community, and as you know, last time we had a caucus here in Nevada in 2012, about 25 percent of the caucus voters were LDS. So we're proud to have a lot of LDS leaders supporting Sen. Rubio and I think his message resonates well with them, as it does with a wide variety of voters," Hutchison said.
Cruz's campaign has its own Mormon surrogate and Vegas connection in Rep. Raúl R. Labrador, R-Idaho. The tea party firebrand is a convert to the LDS faith and was born in Puerto Rico but grew up in Las Vegas. He went to Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, before making his way to Idaho.
"Now you may be asking yourselves why a guy from Idaho is all the way over here campaigning for Ted Cruz. I actually grew up in Las Vegas. I went to Las Vegas High School. Go Wildcats! And I believe in this state. I believe that this state can make the right decision," Labrador said as he warmed up the crowd for Cruz.
Chaffetz, another Mormon convert, embraced Labrador after the Idahoan had spoke and provided some levity when asked by Cruz staffer Catherine Frazier what they could do to change his support from Rubio to Cruz. "You could drop out. That'd be great!" Chaffetz teased.
While the lack of outreach to Latinos might not be the determining factor in the GOP caucus results, it could come back to haunt the party in November as the state gears up for a competitive presidential, Senate and House races.
The Democrats' approach — Clinton had actresses America Ferrara and Eva Longoria introduce her at her Las Vegas caucus-eve party on Feb. 19; Sanders countered with a concert by indie-rock darlings Chicano Batman — didn't prove definitive in the outcome of their contest.
Entrance polls for the Democratic caucuses showed that Sanders won the Hispanic caucus vote. The Clinton campaign has questioned the poll's findings, pointing to lopsided votes for her in several majority Latino precincts, particularly in Clark County. That CNN/ORC poll showed that Hispanics made up about 19 percent of the 80,000 caucus-goers. Even if it was essentially a draw among Hispanics in Clinton vs. Sanders, the state Democratic Party collected voter information and registrations that will come in handy in November.
In 2012, President Barack Obama took the state as he won 71 percent of the votes from Hispanics, who make up 28 percent of the population. Republican Mitt Romney, a Mormon, took 56 percent of white votes here. According to the Census Bureau, whites who are not Hispanic or Latino make up about 51 percent of the population.
Any sort of head-start a party can get in collecting information on the voting population in a state with so many likely close races — Reid's open Senate seat, the open 3rd District House seat and the 4th District seat of the vulnerable Hardy — could be key to November's result.