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Nevada Republicans Go Bust
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Nevada Republicans Go Bust

A plan to help Trump and raise money may do neither.

Michael McDonald, chairman of Nevada's Republican Party, speaks at a Republican midterm election night party at Red Rock Casino on November 8, 2022, in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

Nevada’s Republican Party is a mess. Which is good news for Democrats and a pity for a GOP that seems to be in such near grasp of a Senate seat and six electoral votes next year. But the implications for the rest of the country go well beyond that.

Nevada’s Republican chairman is named Michael McDonald, and he led a bogus slate of electors from the state trying to help then-President Donald Trump swindle his way to a second term in 2021. Was it more What a Fool Believes or Takin’ it to the Streets? Who knows. What we do know for certain, though, is that he seems determined to make sure Trump is the state party’s choice in its February 8 presidential caucus.

Under normal circumstances, that would still only be a big-ish deal. The caucuses are a relatively new institution, with whatever significance they have carried born of Hillary Clinton’s efforts in 2008 to leverage her support among the Latina voters in the state’s service worker unions into a symbolic win against a surging Barack Obama. It would subsequently become a haven for Bernie Sanders and the democratic socialists. 

On the Republican side, the contest has carried even less weight. It doesn’t award any actual delegates, but works as a kind of a straw poll to inform the decisions of the attendees at the state convention in awarding delegates. With a public, time-consuming process at a limited number of locations, the Republican caucuses in a good year might draw 75,000 participants in a state with more than half a million registered GOP voters.

Nevada was poised this cycle to play its largest role yet on the Republican side. The state legislature voted in 2021 to establish a presidential primary for both parties, rather than the often-convoluted caucus system. Adding to the new status: A February 6 primary date that would put Nevada second on the Democratic calendar and third for the GOP—more than two weeks before the previously pivotal South Carolina contest. 

But McDonald sued to stop the state from holding a Republican presidential primary. Not only would a regular election with a broader electorate raise potential challenges for Trump, it would deprive the Nevada GOP of a massive money-making opportunity. The party is asking $55,000 from every candidate who wants to participate, with an October deadline to decide. Plus, McDonald imagines the possibility for a debate, candidate forums, and other high-profile events ahead of the caucuses, which are set to take place three days before Las Vegas hosts the Super Bowl.

A judge, though, disagreed. Because the primary is nonbinding—the parties don’t have to award delegates based on the outcome—a Carson City court denied the state GOP’s bid to bar elections officials from holding the vote. McDonald and Co. appealed last week to the state Supreme Court, but there’s not much reason to think justices will invalidate a duly passed and enacted law in service of the marketing plan and machinations of caucus planners.

The state party has also vowed that no candidate who enters his or her name in the Tuesday, February 6, primary will be permitted to participate in the Thursday, February 8, caucuses. 

Whatever happens, Nevada Republicans will have a messy 2024. But so what? Lots of state Republican parties are disordered these days. And if history is our guide, the state won’t be that competitive in the general. No Republican presidential candidate has won Nevada since George W. Bush in 2004 and Democrats are 3-0 in Senate contests since 2012.  If the state and its six electors are in play, it will join New Hampshire as the small-state maybe, just maybe possibilities for Republicans to knit together 270 electoral votes.

But the Nevada GOP’s dysfunction will be consequential anyway. The competing presidential nominating contests mean that Nevada is likely to have two different winners in the same week. Given the high probability that Trump will win the caucuses, there’s little disincentive for other candidates to save their $55,000 and enter the primary and there’s zero incentive for Trump to do the same. 

The state accounts for just 1 percent of the total delegates to the Republican National Convention, so the math should be easy for everyone other than Trump: Skip the controversial caucuses and forgo delegates that never had much of a shot to begin with. It will be a muddle, and by the time campaigns and commentators have explained that actually the second contest was more significant than the first, though not itself binding, blah, blah, blah … Nevada will be forgotten faster than a bad hand of blackjack.

And that will have significant effects on the race. The big, fat asterisk the Nevada GOP has put on its contest means that a wide gap in the Republican calendar is getting wider. Iowa starts the process on January 15. Eight days later, New Hampshire will cull the field. And then … zippo, save Nevada’s weirdness, for 32 days until February 24 when South Carolina Republicans vote.

The comparable gap in 2016 was 11 days, and that was long enough to push half of the candidates out of the race. Imagine what will happen in a span three times that long. Would either Nikki Haley or Tim Scott, for example, feel free to spend a month dragging around until their home-state primary if they don’t have a top-shelf showing in Iowa and New Hampshire?  

Imagine also how that length of time will work toward the advantage of the survivors in retooling and fundraising for South Carolina and the following four weeks, during which time 69 percent of all available delegates will be awarded.

On Wednesday, the first debate will start the next phase of the nominating process. That phase runs until January 14. Then Iowa and New Hampshire will remake the race for what promises to be a very consequential month, in which the GOP, if there is to be a real battle for the nomination, will have a chance to sort itself out. 

By trying to fill its coffers and help Trump, the Nevada Republican Party may have done harm to both objectives. 

Chris Stirewalt is a contributing editor at The Dispatch, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, the politics editor for NewsNation, co-host of the Ink Stained Wretches podcast, and author of Broken News, a book on media and politics.