In 2016, former President Donald Trump performed better in the caucuses than in the primaries. Now, Trump’s push to bend the GOP to his will is coming to a head in Nevada. The state GOP, currently led by Trump allies, is insisting on moving forward with a presidential caucus on Feb. 8 despite a new state law setting a primary election two days earlier.
However, the party is also expected to approve an additional plan on Saturday — a major win for Trump’s campaign.
On Saturday, the party is expected to approve a plan barring all primary candidates from participating in the caucus. The plan would also restrict super PACs from trying to bolster support for candidates in a caucus, according to reports.
Some Nevada Republicans and Trump competitors have criticized this plan for its potential to confuse voters and tilt the caucus for the former president — and have leveled explosive attacks against the 45th president.
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“Trump hates rigged elections, except when he’s doing the rigging, like he’s doing in Nevada,” said Ken Cuccinelli, who was the deputy secretary of Homeland Security during the Trump administration and is now the founder of the Never Back Down super PAC, which is backing DeSantis’ campaign.
Other campaigns have privately voiced similar concerns, according to the Associated Press.
The Nevada Republican Club, which says it represents about 400 members in the state, sent a letter to local GOP officials this month urging them to speak out about the potential problems with the state having both a primary and a caucus and to defeat the proposed rule changes.
Having both will “frustrate, anger and confuse Nevada’s Republican voters,” and create bad publicity for the Nevada GOP, the club leaders wrote in the letter. They also questioned whether there are enough volunteers to staff a caucus across 17 counties and if the party should spend its money on other goals, like voter registration and getting out the vote in the general election.
“This process will hurt the Republican Party and our candidates in 2024,” the group claimed. “The Nevada Republican Party will give average voters the impression they don’t care about them or their votes.”
Nevada GOP Chairman Michael McDonald previously told the AP that the party pushed the caucus, which they have before, because the Democrat-controlled state Legislature would not pass a law requiring proof of identification at the ballot box, instead of just when registering to vote, among other measures.
Jim DeGraffenreid, a Republican National Committeeman for the Nevada GOP, declined to discuss the proposals that the party was considering, referring to them as “housekeeping.” But he called the idea that Nevada’s process is skewed for Trump “one of the most ridiculous things that I think I’ve ever heard.”
Trump’s ties to the Nevada GOP are especially deep, with the organization led by longstanding allies, including McDonald and DeGraffenreid. Both served as fake presidential electors in 2020. Plus, the party’s executive director, Alida Benson, left that job this summer to run Trump’s campaign in the state.
“It appears that Donald Trump is the last person that needs a thumb on the scale,” DeGraffenreid said, citing the former president’s polling and fundraising strength. “It is not in our interest to rig anything for anyone, especially for someone who apparently doesn’t need to have anything rigged for him.”
Other Trump allies have described the rule changes as perfectly legal and have pointed to historical precedent.
“Despite a large number of candidates, only the Trump campaign went out and did the really hard grunt work of talking to state parties to try and get them to meld their rules to Donald Trump’s favor,” Ben Ginsberg, an attorney, told the Los Angeles Times. Ginsberg represented Mitt Romney in 2012 and George W. Bush during the recount in Florida.
With Trump seeming to have such a heavy advantage in the caucus, some Republicans have speculated that other GOP presidential candidates might forgo trying to win the state’s relatively small number of GOP delegates, instead opting to run in the primary.
A primary run by the state of Nevada would offer early and absentee voting and same-day registration, processes that typically broaden participation. A win in that election, while not helping candidates collect some delegates needed to secure the nomination, could help them gain attention and early momentum by proving their electability among a broader pool of voters.
So far, Vivek Ramaswamy is the only presidential candidate to officially file for the caucus, though Trump is expected to join him.
Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley’s campaign has remained silent on questions about Nevada and representatives for South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott and former Vice President Mike Pence declined to say whether they’ll try to run in one or both processes in Nevada, which is scheduled to vote third, after Iowa and New Hampshire.
“We’re exploring all options in Nevada to best position Ron DeSantis to be the next president,” DeSantis’ Communications Director Andrew Romeo said in a statement.
David Gibbs, president of the Nevada Republican Club, said he’s not concerned about criticism that the process could favor Trump. He worried, however, that the dueling election processes could disenfranchise voters — especially those who may wonder why all of the major candidates aren’t on their ballot when it’s time to vote.
“I like caucuses. I actually prefer caucus to a primary election,” he said. “But doing both is not good. And that’s what we face right now.”
The Horn editorial team and the Associated Press contributed to this article.