LAS VEGAS — In their zeal to make third-on-the-calendar Nevada easier for Donald Trump to win in the 2024 Republican presidential primary, state GOP officials may instead have created a scenario that could delegitimize the result entirely by giving zero delegates to a candidate who wins the most ballots.
“It’s a nightmare. It’s a debacle. I don’t even know where to start,” said former state party chair Amy Tarkanian.
Instead of holding either a caucus or a primary, Nevada is holding both, just two days apart in early February. The primary, on Feb. 6, is being conducted by the state, using all the state voting precincts with ballots mailed to every registered Republican. The caucus, on Feb. 8, requires participants to find the site closest to their home designated by the pro-Trump state party during two specific hours that night to cast a paper ballot that will be counted by hand, by the pro-Trump state party.
“This is a way for them to make sure not only that Donald Trump wins, but to ensure that he wins the majority of the delegates,” Tarkanian said.
And because primaries by their very design almost always have higher participation rates than caucuses, the winner of the primary could easily collect far more ballots than the winner of the caucus — even though the participants of the primary will not win any of the delegates Nevada will send to the summer nominating convention.
“I think it will disenfranchise a number of voters that are interested in voting for a presidential candidate,” Nevada Republican Gov. Joe Lombardo said on a local political podcast this week about the dueling elections. “I think that’s unacceptable for the voters and the understanding of how things should be done.”
He also suggested the motivations of the party leaders were obvious. “I think we all can surmise the reason why it was brought forward, but I think it’s detrimental,” he said. “I think it just continues in the disarray, or the chaos, that’s occurring within the Republican Party currently … It’s unfortunate. I’ve had numerous conversations, both with the state party and other individuals involved. And it’s falling on deaf ears.”
Trump’s rivals were more direct in their criticisms of the state party’s machinations, which included forbidding candidates’ supportive super PACs — such as Never Back Down, effectively the primary campaign vehicle for Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis — from advertising or organizing for the caucus.
“It is disappointing that the Nevada Republican Party changed the rules against the will of the people just to benefit one candidate,” Andrew Romeo, communications director for DeSantis’ campaign, said last month when DeSantis decided to run in the caucus anyway.
“Some support rigged elections if they get to do the rigging,” said Marc Short, an adviser to former Vice President Mike Pence, who filed to run in the primary but subsequently dropped out of the race.
Michael McDonald, the chair of the Nevada Republican Party, disputed accusations that he is backing Trump, telling HuffPost he appeared just this week with two other candidates running for the 2024 Republican nomination, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum. “I often do this for any Republican candidate as state chairman.”
Yet McDonald, whose public justifications of the need for a caucus lean on the same set of lies Trump began spreading about mail ballots and early voting well ahead of the 2020 election, also explicitly endorsed Trump at his Las Vegas rally on Oct. 28: “You give us a fair election, I’ll give you the next president of the United States, Donald J. Trump.”
A Pro-Trump State Party
That the state party is backing the coup-attempting former president is perhaps not surprising, given its leadership.
McDonald and Republican National Committee member Jim DeGraffenreid have both supported Trump for years, while the other RNC member, Sigal Chattah, called Trump both the 45th and 47th president at his rally last weekend.
McDonald and DeGraffenreid were also both fraudulent electors for Trump in 2020. Each signed a document falsely claiming they were valid electors for Trump in the Electoral College, when in fact Trump lost the state by 34,000 votes.
Nevada was among five states where Trump supporters, with the coordination and support of both the Trump campaign and the RNC, sent fraudulent elector slates to Congress so that Pence, in his role as president of the Senate, could use the existence of competing elector slates to to award Trump a second term despite his election loss. He refused to go along with the scheme and Trump eventually told the rioting mob that he had summoned to Washington that day for the purpose of pressuring Pence to go home.
Both McDonald and DeGraffenreid were called before the House Jan. 6 committee, where both invoked their Fifth Amendment rights not to incriminate themselves when asked questions about that day. Both also testified under a limited immunity agreement before the federal grand jury that ultimately indicted Trump for actions related to his coup attempt — meaning both are potential, if not likely, witnesses at Trump’s trial on those charges next spring.
McDonald — who had his phone seized by the FBI as part of the Trump investigation — did not respond to HuffPost queries about his grand jury testimony. DeGraffenreid said his lawyer had advised him not to discuss it and he declined to do so.
Former state chair Tarkanian said the current state party leadership’s devotion to Trump and involvement with him in his accused criminal behavior should give Nevada’s Republican voters pause.
“The state party is basically being run by people who are willing to throw themselves on the railroad tracks for this man,” she said. “These are the people who are going to run a process with honesty and integrity? Give me a break.”
Caucus Chaos Looms
Separate from the question of fairness and impartiality is the matter of confusion. The 636,097 Republican voters in the state will all receive a primary ballot in the mail, which they can fill out and return or, if they choose, can go to one of the state-run polling places to vote on primary election day, Feb. 6. Two days later, the state party will stage their caucus, most likely at far fewer sites around the state for a two-hour period that evening, where voters can also cast a ballot.
South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott and former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley are participating in the primary, while Christie, Burgum, businessman Vivek Ramaswamy and DeSantis are in the caucus along with Trump.
“You’re going to have a lot of very confused and disappointed voters who go to the polls and find their pony isn’t there to be picked,” Tarkanian predicted.
David Gibbs, president of the Nevada Republican Club, wrote to state party leaders before their Sept. 23 meeting, telling them that, given a new law requiring a state-run primary when there is a competitive election, it would be unnecessarily expensive and, more important, confusing for the party to stage its own caucus.
“The Nevada Republican Party will give average voters the impression they don’t care about them or their votes. How do you think that will make them feel — disenfranchised, angry, and potentially less willing to support the Republican Party further,” he wrote in a letter signed on behalf of the 400-member group’s leaders.
During the 2016 caucuses, just 75,200 of the state’s 505,818 registered Republicans cast ballots in the in-person-only event — 14.9%.
In the 2022 primary for the GOP nomination for governor, 228,544 of the state’s 627,530 registered Republicans cast ballots in the state-run election — 36.4%, more than double the caucus’ turnout rate.
If that pattern continues this year, the winner of the Feb. 6 primary could easily draw more votes than the winner of the Feb. 8 caucuses but wind up with none of the state’s 26 delegates to the summer nominating convention. Those will all be awarded based on the caucus result, and the party is not allowing candidates who participate in the primary to enter the caucus.
“Even if the winner of the February 6th Primary received more votes than the winner of the February 8th caucus, it won’t matter. They won’t get delegates,” Gibbs wrote. “The voters will not react well to that, nor will the campaigns.”
At the rally last weekend where McDonald effectively endorsed Trump, he also mocked the candidates who chose to enter the primary. “President Trump and several other people are not going to be on that ballot. Because that’s for the Democrats. They’re going to be competing, if you’re a Republican, you’re competing for a plastic tiara. And we’re going to give you a participation trophy,” he said, and suggested to the Trump supporters packed into Stoney’s Rockin’ Country nightclub that the primary would actually be rigged.
“You go to bed, your man or woman is winning, you wake up the next day, and they’re behind by 3,000 votes,” McDonald said. “You don’t think they’re trying to rig this?”
DeGraffenreid, who is also vice chair of the state party, said he and other officials are aware of the potential for confusion. “We’re obviously going to have a major voter education campaign,” he told HuffPost.
Based on the confusion evident in the line of Trump followers waiting to enter Stoney’s last weekend, the state party has its work cut out for it.
A dozen or so campaign staffers in “Team Trump” T-shirts moved up and down the queue, pigeonholing attendees, gathering names and phone numbers and explaining about the two separate events 48 hours apart and that they should ignore the first one.
“He’s not going to be on the ballot,” a staffer told a woman in line as she filled out a “commit to caucus” card.
“I didn’t know that,” the woman replied.
Roberto Rivera, a 48-year-old retired New York City police officer, said that if Trump wants to be in the caucus and not the primary, he supports that decision even if he doesn’t really understand it.
“It’s a complicated thing. You’ve got to get online and find out where to go,” Rivera said about the caucus process. “They’re not making it easy.”
Renee Bardot, a 55-year-old native of Germany who said she came to the United States in 1991 because of “freedom,” said she didn’t know about the two different days and primary versus caucus. She was enraged when she learned that the state-run primary would not have Trump’s name on it.
“If Trump isn’t on the ballot, I’m never going to vote again,” she said. “I have land in Utah. I’ll go live there and raise sheep.”
Another woman wearing a denim jacket and Trump 2024 button, who spoke on condition of anonymity, appeared perplexed and said she also did understand the need for two separate events and why Trump did not simply appear on the primary ballot.
When told that Trump critics and rivals were accusing him of forcing a caucus because it was easier to rig to ensure a Trump victory, she brightened. “Oh,” she said with a smile. “That’s good. I want him to win.”