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August 4, 2015

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If Santorum sustains momentum, Nevada offers opportunity

State has libertarian bent, but has supported ‘family values’ candidates before

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THE NEW YORK TIMES

Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, speaks at his caucus night event at the Stoney Creek Inn in Johnston, Iowa, on Jan. 4, 2012.

Local reaction to Iowa caucus

KSNV coverage of the local reaction to the results of the Iowa caucus, Jan. 3, 2012.

In the final week of the Iowa campaign, when it was finally Rick Santorum’s turn to surge against former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, it was socially conservative, often evangelical, Christian voters who pushed him to within eight votes of a victory.

Assuming Santorum rides that momentum through the early primary states to Nevada’s Feb. 4 caucuses, he’ll find here a more libertarian Republican voter and a state suffering more under the recession than Iowa. Voters here are more concerned about jobs and the economy than the traditional family values — opposition to abortion, contraception and gay marriage — that Santorum has emphasized in his campaign.

Exit polls in 2008 found only a quarter of Nevada GOP primary voters were evangelical Christians. But that’s not to say politicians like Santorum haven’t had success in the Silver State. In fact, the best and most recent example is one of the former Pennsylvania senator’s friends in Congress — John Ensign.

Santorum won a third of Iowa’s evangelical Christian vote, 58 percent of those who consider abortion the most important issue and more than a third of those who consider themselves “very conservative,” exit polls show. That voter profile — evangelical and very conservative — made up about half of caucusgoers in Iowa.

Nevada, meanwhile, is home to a more libertarian strain of Republican voters, who sway more on questions of fiscal restraint and limiting government intrusion than abortion or other social issues.

“He might appeal to some of our transplants from the South, but most of our transplants are from California,” said Grant Hewitt, a Las Vegas Republican consultant.

However, those issues do appeal to a slice of Nevada voters. The state leans libertarian, but is still home to networks of social conservatives who coalesce around abortion, gay marriage and other related issues.

Ensign shared positions similar to Santorum on social and religious issues and was popular with voters until a scandal surrounding an extramarital affair led to his resignation last year.

In fact, until the scandal, Ensign had one of the best political brands in Nevada. His career — two terms in the House and two in the Senate — proves a social conservative can succeed in the state. While also an anti-tax conservative, Ensign never downplayed his position on social issues.

As Santorum campaigns in Nevada, he may face questions about his role in the scandal that brought down Ensign. The husband of the woman Ensign had the affair with, Doug Hampton, emailed Santorum asking for help and indicating he was set to go public with the details.

Santorum forwarded that email to Ensign, a move that reportedly prompted Ensign to admit to the affair to his staff and issue a pre-emptive apology. Santorum has yet to respond to questions about that email.

As Santorum’s newly hired Nevada staff builds a strategy for him, it is intent on making strong use of the networks of social conservatives in Nevada, including anti-abortion groups, family values networks and others.

“It’s a strong movement across the board,” said Zac Moyle, Santorum’s Nevada consultant. “There are more anti-abortion and social conservative groups here than people realize.”

Indeed, a candidate like Santorum could drive more turnout from those groups, which could have an impact on the overall voting pool.

Four years ago, Romney — who did not seek to appeal to evangelical Christians — had the leading turnout effort in the state.

Don Nelson, head of Nevada Life, one of the networks Moyle hopes to engage, said Santorum is a very appealing candidate who would do well in Nevada. “He’s an outstanding presidential candidate,” Nelson said.

But he was quick to add that he believes Romney is also strongly anti-abortion despite questions about Romney’s past positions on the issue.

Moyle said his campaign will work to earn support from voters who supported candidates who have dropped out of the presidential race. Retired businessman Herman Cain, for example, had staff organizing in Nevada. Moyle sees an opportunity to reach out to those precinct captains and others who may be looking for a candidate other than Romney.

“Voters have been longing for someone else,” Moyle said. “It is very clear from every poll that has been run that a significant chunk of voters are looking for just that. We will go out and find those voters who are already longing for another candidate and tell them, ‘Your candidate is here, and his name is Rick Santorum.’ ”

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