Editor's note: This is the last in a series of profiles on candidates in the Republican U.S. Senate primary.
LOGANDALE - In Mormon households, Monday night is "family home evening," a time for studying the Gospel, singing hymns and engaging in wholesome activities such as playing board games.
But on one recent Monday evening at the Marshall house, which Gary Marshall built with his own hands in the territorial-Victorian style of straight lines, wide porches and sturdy wooden posts, the topic is politics.
Yes, there are children dipping sticky fingers into a jar of Oreos, scooting around on the carpet and shifting from lap to lap as the evening wears on. But these Mormons are gathered not to study the Gospel but to talk about why they will never again vote for U.S. Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., one of their own.
"I think he sold his soul when they put him in as Senate leader," Marshall says, hearkening back to 2005 when Reid replaced Sen. Tom Daschle, the former Democratic leader. Daschle lost re-election when South Dakota conservatives rejected him and his party's more liberal agenda, a problem Reid now faces in Nevada.
"Reid forgot who he worked for and he forgot his values," Marshall says. "He forgot us."
That's music to the ears of Chad Christensen, a Republican U.S. Senate candidate, a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the center of the evening in Logandale, a Moapa Valley enclave that's about half Mormon in a state where the conservative church vote counts.
Although Mormons make up 7.5 percent of the state population, they account for 20 percent to 30 percent of the Republican vote, according to rough estimates of the active conservative bloc. Mormon Mitt Romney won the GOP presidential caucus in Nevada two years ago thanks to support from nine out of 10 members of the LDS church, according to network TV surveys of participants.
Christensen, his eye on the distant primary prize, is wooing the conservative crowd he knows.
"Tell me what's at stake in this election," Christensen asks at the Monday gathering.
"The future of our country," Marshall answers.
"Everything we believe in," says his wife, Vikki.
"We're running scared. We're frightened of everything going on in the United States now," Gary Marshall adds, referring to government industry bailouts and what he sees as a takeover of health care.
This is what Christensen wants to hear during his call and response routine, repeated in living room after living room, from Logandale to Las Vegas down South, from Sparks to Spring Creek up North. He's got 'em where he wants 'em, a campaign carnival barker in a handsome Sunday suit, selling himself to his religious brothers and sisters as the best Republican alternative to Reid.
"Those are the answers I get every time: 'Everything I stand for is at stake,'" he tells the group of less than a dozen men and women and their families. "I feel the same way. I'm petrified."
And he has the solution. It's the same one all the GOP contenders are suggesting.
"It's time to retire Harry Reid," Christensen says, voice rising. "He's been there about 90 years. As the architect of everything we don't like, it's time for him to go."
"How many shots do we have?" Christensen asks, moving in to make his main point.
"One," Gary Marshall says.
"What happens if we lose?" Christensen asks.
"Six more years of Harry Reid," Marshall answers, shaking his head.
Christensen, who jumped into the race at the last minute in a long-shot leap of faith, isn't expected to pick up many votes in the June 8 primary. A dozen candidates are seeking the GOP nomination, including the leading conservative Sharron Angle, competing for the same electoral slice of pie.
But, if nothing else, Christensen's campaign has revealed the depth of distrust some members of Reid's church have of the Searchlight native, who was baptized while in college after he grew up with no religion and after his wife converted from the Jewish faith. This apparently diminishing support could be part of Reid's Nov. 2 undoing, since he'll need every vote in his uphill battle for a fifth U.S. Senate term.
"Mormons view him as a 'Jack' Mormon, someone who's not living his faith," says Fred Lokken, political science professor at Truckee Meadows Community College. "Mormons tend to be a solid voting bloc and have been since Nevada became a state" in 1864.
"In a close election, this could make the difference," he adds, referring to Reid in the fall.
As for Christensen, Mormons might vote for him out of loyalty in the GOP primary or pick the conservative they think could win, most likely former Reno Assemblywoman Angle or perhaps Danny Tarkanian, who has no record but has cast himself as a no-tax, small-government choice. Sue Lowden, who touts her mostly conservative voting record as a state senator, also could pick up votes in the church community if people think she has the best shot at beating Reid, the Democratic standard-bearer.
"Chad's campaign is the longest of long shots," Lokken says. "Sometimes the support you think is there doesn't show up. The ballot box is a pretty private place."
So are Mormon places of worship, where those who support Reid often keep their opinions to themselves, standing by the belief that politics is private and doesn't belong in church.
"When people try to attack him, there isn't anybody who is willing to speak up," says Richard Bunker, a prominent Mormon and strong Reid supporter who happens to be Republican. "The problem is, the people that are vocal are the ones who are opposed to him, the ones that are beating the tom-toms with the Tea Party and all of that garbage. Sometimes I have to straighten them out."
Bunker, whose great-grandfather was among Mormons who founded Bunkerville in 1877, says his wife attends a lunch bunch and sometimes hears women talking about how Reid is for abortion, something that isn't true but is among the myths floating about in the community, he says.
"There are a lot of people in the church who still support him," Bunker says.
Adds Marlan Walker, a former LDS bishop and mission president, "I love Harry Reid like a son. His commitment to his faith is unwavering."
Walker, who married Harry and Landra Reid, says "he is respected by all of us who know the kind of father and husband he is."
On the campaign trail, LDS members flock to Christensen's family-friendly events, including "Float the Vote" park parties. Volunteers and relatives serve root beer and ice cream floats, people in shorts and T-shirts toss Frisbees and baseballs, and local bands with names such as "Big Trouble" play.
Despite the close-knit Mormon community, many are meeting Christensen for the first time.
Fred and Gwen Ferrell attended an April "Float the Vote" event at a Las Vegas park after they were invited by Christensen's mother-in-law, Anita Brooks, an internationally known interior designer in Las Vegas who has worked on resort projects from the Red Rock Resort to Mandalay Bay.
The Ferrells used to be loyal Reid supporters and consider themselves family friends.
Gwen Ferrell says she has known Reid's wife, Landra, since they were both in seventh grade. The Ferrells held a get together for Reid in their backyard during his 1998 bid for re-election, which he nearly lost to John Ensign, the Republican who later won Nevada's other U.S. Senate seat.
The couple were registered Democrats until two years ago when President Barack Obama won the White House and then began expanding government's reach too far, in their view, especially with the health care law Reid helped craft that requires people to buy insurance.
"I still consider Harry Reid a friend, but not somebody I want to vote for," Gwen Ferrell says. "He's gone against our core beliefs. I knocked on doors for him, but he's just changed."
Fred Ferrell says the church believes in a frugal lifestyle and not spending more than you make, something the nation has done, resulting in record budgets and deficits as the economy has tanked.
"I'm for pay as you go," Fred Ferrell says, adding that this is a way of life for the Mormon community. "This is not a hard-core doctrine in our church, but you try to stay out of debt."
But Ferrell's disappointment goes beyond fiscal matters. He points to Reid calling former President George W. Bush a liar and saying the United States lost the war in Iraq.
"That kind of stuff adds up," he says. "We don't forget. And 90 percent of the people I know who used to support Reid don't want him any more."
The Ferrells say they plan to vote for Christensen, although if he weren't running their second choice would be Angle, who has been rising in the polls during the past couple of months with each new endorsement from conservative groups, including the national Tea Party Express.
Those rallying around Christensen seem focused on Reid, not the GOP contest.
"Getting Chad to win the primary is a pretty tall order," says Chris Ostler, a Mormon and a new supporter who met Christensen after he formally announced his candidacy in March. "We're running a stealth campaign. The vast majority of people think like we do. Eighty percent or more of the church are extreme right or center right. We believe in marriage between a man and a woman. We're against abortion. We're exasperated by Reid because his party has pulled him away from our values. He has to support the Democratic platform. I don't even know if Reid knows who he is anymore."
Despite his troubles at home, Reid is a devout Mormon and has maintained strong ties with church leaders in Salt Lake City who appreciate his power. In March, Reid and LDS officials presented first lady Michelle Obama with a copy of her family's genealogy during a visit to the White House.
In a speech at Utah's Brigham Young University in late 2007, Reid said he saw no contradiction in his personal Mormon beliefs and his political party's sometimes more liberal views.
"I'm a Democrat because I am a Mormon, not in spite of it," Reid said.
Yet in late March, protesters threatened a demonstration and forced Reid to cancel a speech titled "Why I Believe" that he had been invited to deliver at a Mormon church in Las Vegas. The senator had already given one such "fireside" testimony in Southern Nevada and was asked to do five more, according to his office. But when word spread, Mormons who no longer support Reid objected.
"I am disappointed that people, primarily outside of our stake, threatened to disrupt the meeting and that unfortunately, due to security concerns, last night's fireside did not occur," Tule Springs Stake President Daren Richards said in a statement the day after the cancellation. A stake is a group of six to twelve wards, or congregations. "Senator Reid was very sensitive about members who felt nervous or unsafe about coming to their own meeting houses and he did not want them to have such feelings. It is for this reason that the fireside was not held last evening."
Reid spokesman Jon Summers dismisses criticism from some Mormons that the senator was trying to get closer to Nevada church members for political reasons in an election year. Reid has participated in fireside chats "periodically over the years," not just during campaigns, Summers says.
"The bottom line is that Senator Reid has an inspiring story about his conversion that people enjoy hearing, which is why he was asked to participate in additional chats this year," Summers says.
Chad Christensen doesn't buy that argument.
"I just thought it was weird. And I do think it's ironic that the firesides were in my district," Christensen says. "I think people by and large do not trust Harry Reid anymore."
His wife, Ashley, who often brings their four tow-headed sons and one daughter to campaign events, says if it weren't an election year, she would like to hear Reid's conversion talk.
"It's not that we have this hatred toward Harry Reid," Ashley Christensen says.
"He's still a brother," Chad Christensen agrees.
"It's just upsetting that there's a huge separation between our morals and his politics," she says.
"Mormons want a Christian they can count on," Chad Christensen says.
In Christensen's view, that means him, as the only contender currently holding office.
In his campaign spiel, he preaches the three Rs:
■ Reid, because the election is a referendum on his leadership of Nevada and the nation.
■ RÃ©sumÃ©, because Christensen has never lost an election compared with Lowden, who was voted out nearly two decades ago, and Angle and Tarkanian, who both lost their last two election bids.
■ Republican, because Christensen says he would focus on rebuilding the party, which no other candidate is talking about, including former state GOP chairwoman Lowden. The party in Nevada is in disarray with conservative Tea Party-aligned factions fighting for influence here and nationally.
"Candidates like me don't get elected without others sharing the same passions," Christensen tells the Logandale crowd, calling them "real people" who see the world like him.
Yet sometimes actions speak louder than words.
The LDS church and Christensen promote personal responsibility, but the 40-year-old Las Vegas assemblyman has had his share of personal and political financial troubles.
In 2001, he filed Chapter 7 bankruptcy after his Internet company went bust, but ran for election for the first time anyway after members of the business community approached him, he says. The backing paid off with Christensen a reliable "no" vote on business taxes.
In 2004, Christensen paid a $4,500 fine for not reporting some donations and expenses on campaign finance reports, including bills for fast-food lunches, which drew a lot of criticism at the time.
Christensen, whose company advises small businesses that want to expand into medium-sized companies, admits he has made mistakes in the past. As for his Internet startup company, he's up front with people on the campaign trail, saying, "It took off like a rocket and exploded like a rocket."
"Everyone is allowed to make mistakes in their life," says Christensen, the youngest of seven children whose military father and family required religious and personal discipline.
So far, his foibles haven't hurt him at the polls, though his political days appear numbered now.
An outdoorsman who likes to race motocross on weekends, Christensen exudes youthful energy, which no doubt has helped him win four elections in Assembly District 13, even in 2008 when Obama won the vote by 10 percentage points on his turf.
"I felt like the only palm tree left on the beach," Christensen says of the Democratic rout up and down the ticket two years ago, although now the pendulum seems to be swinging back to the GOP.
Long odds or not, Christensen seems to relish campaigning.
His most popular, attention-getting gimmick is driving around in a big "Dump Reid, Vote Chad" dump truck decked out in red, white and blue that prompts waves and joyful hoots from passers-by. It doesn't get much mileage, though, so Christensen is always looking for diesel to fill it up.
"They left me empty," he complains of his campaign helpers as he stops to refuel on his way to a park from a GOP hootenanny at Stoney's Rockin' Country bar and dance hall where the conservative political crowd meets the first Friday of each month.
"They're always leaving me empty," he grumbles, filling the tank halfway at a cost of $40.47.
Christensen had the same trouble with his campaign, which was running on fumes until Arizona passed a tough law that allows police to ask suspected illegal immigrants about their legal status if they are stopped or arrested for another reason. Christensen jumped on the issue, proposing the same law for Nevada and calling for a special session to pass it. When Republican Gov. Jim Gibbons refused, Christensen announced an initiative petition to let voters decide, although there won't be time to gather the more than 92,000 signatures needed to get it on the November ballot.
Christensen denies it was an election year stunt, noting he has tried to pass laws to control illegal immigration in the past couple of regular legislative sessions, although the bills went nowhere.
"The people who say that I'm just talking about illegal immigration because it's an election year don't know anything about me," Christensen says, adding that it's a fairness and economic issue more than a stance against the tens of thousands of immigrants who come to America legally.
Educating, incarcerating and caring for noncitizens costs Nevada state government $630 million a year, according to estimates by the Federation for American Immigration Reform, an anti-illegal immigration organization.
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security estimates there are 260,000 illegal immigrants in Nevada, a number 53 percent higher than the 170,000 in 2000.
"I'm the last person to be anti-immigrant," says Christensen, a fluent Spanish speaker who was a missionary in Argentina and whose wife and in-laws have Hispanic blood. Christensen takes pride in teaching his children, ages 13 to 3, Spanish and doesn't usually speak to them in English.
Still, the conservative rhetoric against illegal immigrants can sound harsh.
At Stoney's, more than 500 rowdy Republicans including Christensen cheered on Maricopa County (Ariz.) Sheriff Joe Arpaio as he spoke about working to stop illegal immigration, even as his department faces a lawsuit that accuses him of racial profiling.
"They call me Hitler," Arpaio bragged, dismissing his critics, including about 200 demonstrators protesting outside Stoney's against his appearance. "I'm going to keep fighting the fight."
"I think you're doing yeoman's work," Christensen told Arpaio on stage after posing for a photograph with the man known as "America's toughest sheriff," who has earned headlines by housing prisoners in tents and making them wear pink underwear as part of his effort to control them.
"He's just taking away the incentives of being in prison," Christensen said in Arpaio's defense.
Tarkanian also has taken on the hot-button issue, including by running campaign TV ads, which is stealing Christensen's thunder and ability to capitalize on polls that show more than eight out of 10 Republicans in Nevada favor a crackdown on illegal immigration.
So that leaves math and Mormons as Christensen's best bet for any sort of showing on June 8.
Christensen's campaign, like other Republicans in the contest, figures the winner might gain the GOP nomination with as few as 35,000 votes because primary turnout is often low, around 30 percent. And he won nearly 39,000 total votes in his last victory in 2008, most of them Republicans.
"If I don't win, politically I'm done," he says. "I'll just go back to being Chad the businessman."
One vote he won't get is from Bunker, one of Reid's biggest defenders who worked side by side with him to get the mob out of the casino business when Bunker chaired the Gaming Control Board and Reid headed the Nevada Gaming Commission in the late 1970s.
"Chad Christensen doesn't have any chance of winning the Mormon vote," Bunker says dismissively. "He's just a kid that's just trying hard to be a politician."
Contact Laura Myers at email@example.com or 702-387-2919.