For the last few years, Republicans in Nevada have backed off their hard line stance toward immigration — and it paid off.
The state party called for citizenship for people living in the country illegally, Republicans fell in line behind their popular Hispanic governor, Brian Sandoval, and the GOP swept the 2014 elections while hardly discussing the issue.
But as the Republicans in the state prepare for their caucus, it appears that the good will is about to end.
"There is a backlash in general against people who break the law and get away with it," said Assemblyman Ira Hansen, a supporter of Sen. Ted Cruz. "Nevada is very much a microcosm of what's happened nationally," he added — elite Republicans turned dovish on immigration, "and that conflicts with the rank and file....That's why Trump has taken off so well."
Nevada's economy depends on a steady flow of overseas tourists. It is 28 percent Latino, 9 percent Asian-American and leads the nation with the highest rate of people living in the country illegally, according to the Pew Hispanic Center. Its immigrant communities — 19 percent of its population was born outside the United States — have helped turn a once reliably Republican state in presidential elections into one that backed Obama twice. Many analysts attribute that to hardline Republican positions on immigration.
"We seem overwhelmed by the other side because the other side is a lot more vocal," Fernando Romero, of the nonpartisan Las Vegas group Hispanics in Politics, said.
Romero singled out Trump and Cruz as the most vocal of the GOP presidential contenders. "Unfortunately, those two individuals are doing so much to create that tension and that skepticism that those who maybe have never voted before or that are now becoming U.S. citizens . are leaning toward whoever the Democratic candidate would be."
On Monday evening, Trump was introduced at a heavily attended rally by Joe Arpaio, the Arizona Sheriff who is synonymous with heated anti-immigration rhetoric. Shortly after Trump took to the stage in an arena in a Las Vegas hotel, his supporters burst into a throaty chant.
"Build that wall! Build that wall!" they shouted — a reference to Trump's plan to build a wall along the length of the Southern border to stop illegal immigration.
"We're going to build the wall. And whose going to pay for that wall?" asked Trump.
"Mexico!" shouted the crowd in response.
"They think we're kidding, too, don't they folks, huh? We're not kidding," added Trump.
"We're not going to be the dummies, anymore folks. We're going to be the smart ones," the GOP front-runner said.
Cruz only treads lightly on immigration in his campaign speeches, but the mention drew the biggest cheers during his appearance outside a sports bar in a rural town 60 miles west of Las Vegas. "We need to finally, finally, finally secure the borders and end sanctuary cities," he said, speaking to a crowd of several hundred from the bed of a black pickup truck.
Immigration was also the reason many Cruz supporters were opposed to Sen. Marco Rubio, who helped write a bill that would have eventually granted citizenship to many of the 11 million people in the U.S. illegally.
"Anytime you do anything with Chuck Schumer and Harry Reid, that goes against my philosophy," said Ed Horn, 67, a retired air-traffic controller who has switched his allegiance from Trump to Cruz. "I believe he's going to shut the borders down and be more for legalized immigration, maybe slow it down until our economy comes back."
Immigration critics contend they can win Nevada's diverse voters. They point to people like Mario Sevilla, a legal immigrant from Mexico who lives in Las Vegas and ardently backs Cruz. "Rubio was in that Gang of Eight — that's like an anchor," Sevilla said. "You lock your doors at night. I can't get angry at white people" for opposing illegal immigration, he added. "We've got laws."
But Andres Ramirez, a Democratic strategist here, says Republicans are getting boxed in by Trump and, to a lesser extent, Cruz. "We have tea party folks here and we have anti-immigrant folks here in Nevada, but they're not the dominant voice," Ramirez said. "But the fact that the (state Republicans) are having to take sides with or condone the stances of their national standard bearers creates a problem."
The division in the state pre-dates the presidential contest. Attorney General Adam Laxalt, who was elected in the GOP wave of 2014, clashed with Sandoval over the attorney general joining a lawsuit to overturn Obama's executive action limiting deportations, which is very popular in the state's Latino community.
Laxalt has endorsed Cruz while most of the rest of the state's GOP elite is backing Rubio. Laxalt's top political strategist, Robert Uithoven, is running Cruz's Nevada campaign.
Uithoven said Republican base discontent is less about immigration and more about GOP politicians not staying true to their conservative principles. He tied the immigration dispute to another divide with Sandoval, who pushed through and signed the largest tax increase in state history last year after Republicans won control of the state legislature.
"This divide between the ruling class and the grass roots doesn't just exist in Ted Cruz's mind," Uithoven said.
Based on reporting by The Associated Press.