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Much was said about the sway of Nevada’s urban Latino population ahead of the Democratic presidential caucuses on Saturday. It’s a different story for the Republican contest on Tuesday.
While most Republicans live in Las Vegas and Reno, Nevada’s sparsely populated counties could play an outsized role, especially if caucus turnout is low in the cities.
Nevadans who live in “the rurals” are whiter, older and carry a proud brand of anti-establishment politics, says University of Nevada Reno Political Scientist Eric Herzik. “These people turnout.”
I put 500 miles on my car, driving through the Mojave Desert on Nevada highways, to test this theory.
I started at the bottom of the state, in the quiet resort town of Laughlin, where the swift-moving Colorado River forms the state border with Arizona.
“I like to call it Mayberry with casinos,” says Jordan Ross, a libertarian-leaning Republican and the township’s elected constable. “This is a community with essentially no crime. No traffic. No smog. What’s not to like?”
Ross starts up his squad car. We drive through Laughlin’s casino district. It looks like a micro version of Las Vegas. But fewer tourists have come here over the years. Down the road, we pass a fenced off lot. It’s what’s left of a coal-fired plant that was demolished in 2011.
“We have a lot of working people, and a lot of people who are struggling economically,” he says.
Laughlin is also home to retirees and one billionaire, “Don Laughlin, for whom the town is named.”
Clark County active voter registration data give an edge to Republicans in this township. That’s not a surprise, really. If you take away the state’s two most populous counties, which include Reno and Las Vegas, Nevada Republicans outnumber Democrats 2 to 1.
Ross, who is also the state party’s whip, says a lot of those voters make up the anti-establishment wing - Tea Party and Liberty Republicans.
I ask him if the fight for president between establishment candidates and outsiders like Donald Trump and Ted Cruz is happening here in Nevada.
“Unfortunately yes,” he says, adding that the last legislative session was as remarkable for the infighting within the assembly Republican caucus as it was with any disagreement with Democrats. “It has had a very real practical day-to-day effect on government in Nevada.”
That brings us to Pahrump, Nevada, 150 miles northwest of Laughlin, where real estate broker Andy Alberti takes me on a tour of his backyard. It’s a patch of dirt in the Mojave. Take a wrong turn out here, and you might end up in California’s Death Valley just on the other side of the state line.
Like much of Nevada, Pahrump boomed in the early 2000s and then went bust with the housing crisis a few years later. Today, the unemployment and foreclosure rates are still above the national average.
“When you first moved out here you could live your life,” says Alberti, who describes himself as a proud libertarian in Republican clothing. “Government didn’t come in and say clean your yard, or put in a lawn. Out here you had the freedom to live your life as long as you didn’t disturb your neighbors.”
In 2008 and 2012, the libertarian candidate Ron Paul won this county. Alberti says turnout at the school where he caucused was huge, and he predicts another anti-establishment candidate will win again on Tuesday.
“I think this year it’s going to be even bigger, and when we come out of that caucus we’re going to make new friends,” he says.
Alberti already has a lot of friends. He introduces me to a few of them at a Smith’s grocery store parking lot where they have a table set up. Petitions run down the length of it.
Ban the five-cent gas tax. Strike down a sales tax.
One by one, people come to the table and sign the petitions. I do meet one John Kasich supporter. But mostly people have someone else in mind.
“Trump,” says Pahrump resident Gary Smith. “He’s the only one who makes any damn sense. A lot of people dislike the guy. I dislike him. He’s a bum. But he makes sense on what he’s talking about on government.”
And that means small government. Or no government, which brings us to my final stop.
Bunkerville, Nevada, is a little town on the Virgin River about 80 miles northeast of Las Vegas.
Bunkerville is also the hometown of rancher Cliven Bundy, who along with his sons, has been at odds with the federal government over the use of public land.
Bundy is in jail. Last week, a federal grand jury indicted him for leading a 2014 armed standoff with federal agents just a few miles down the road.
“He’s just a down to earth guy,” says Bunkerville’s constable, Erik Laub, who has gotten to know the Bundy family well. He says their watermelons are famous around here.
Bundy’s fight encapsulates so much of the anger that rural America feels toward the federal government, and Laub sees the same tension showing itself in the race for president. “The gut feeling is a lot of people agree with Cliven and agree with Donald Trump that something needs to be done.”
But here’s the tricky thing about an outsider like Donald Trump in a place like Bunkerville. The New York City real estate developer would stick out like a sore thumb in rural Nevada.
“Right,” says Laub, a registered Democrat who votes Republican. “Donald Trump is so full of crap. But the bottom line is he says he’s going to do something with immigration. He’s going to do something about the EPA. And if he came here and talked to me, when he got done, probably I would still think he’s full of crap. But he’s saying the things that need to happen.”
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