Nevadans have an opportunity to play a major role in picking the next Republican presidential nominee—and they're determined not to blow it.
As it stands now, the state will be the fourth in the GOP primary lineup. And for the first time since it scored that early spot, the state's delegates are truly up for grabs, with no one candidate set to dominate. Standing between Nevada Republicans and the influence they dream of, however, is a string of embarrassing blunders involving their state caucuses, including low turnout, lost ballots, and last-minute controversies over who actually won the state's support.
With those failures in mind, and with a chance to influence 2016's historically competitive Republican contest, the Nevada GOP is now considering a dramatic change: ditching the caucus system altogether in favor of a more traditional primary.
The 2016 election will mark Nevada's third as one of the first four states that kick off the presidential primary process, but the first in which its Republican voters could have a truly significant impact on choosing the party's nominee. In 2008 and 2012, the state's GOP caucus results were largely pre-ordained, thanks in part to the lock Mitt Romney had on the state's Mormon vote. And with Ron Paul securing Nevada's prevalent libertarian wing, there wasn't a lot of room for other Republican candidates to compete.
This time around, there's no clear front-runner. Rand Paul is looking to take advantage of the infrastructure his father left behind. Marco Rubio has ties to the state after spending part of his childhood in Las Vegas. And Republicans expect Jeb Bush to contend for a sizable chunk of the voters who went for Romney. But any number of candidates could make a play in the state.
Still, some Nevada Republicans worry that unless they change course, fewer candidates will compete in the state due to the problems they've had with the caucus system, potentially jeopardizing their prized position at the front of the primary calendar.
"There is clear momentum towards moving to a primary," said Ryan Erwin, who worked on both of Romney's Nevada campaigns and recently signed on as an adviser to Bush. "We want to protect our first-four status for presidential races, and perhaps more important than anything, we want to protect the integrity of the election."
The potential shift to a primary comes after a disastrous 2012 caucus that saw fewer than 33,000 Republicans, or 8 percent of the eligible voters, participate—a sharp drop from the 44,000-plus voters who turned out in 2008. Even with 2012's low turnout, a series of delays and discrepancies at precincts across the state prevented the party from officially certifying the results until two days after Romney had declared victory.
"I think you've got people kind of on every side of any traditional state party-type fight that recognize this has to be better than four years ago. It just has to be better," Erwin said. "No matter how that's done, it has to be better."
The process was messy in 2008, too. After a showdown between the supporters of Ron Paul and John McCain, the presumptive nominee at the time, over national convention delegates, state party leaders shut down the convention early, resulting in a chaotic scene in which some attendees refused to leave and tried to restart the convention. Eighteen months later, a set of uncounted convention ballots were found at the site of the event, showing that Paul should have actually had three additional Nevada delegates sent to the national GOP convention.
Now, Nevada Republicans are trying to assure the party's presidential hopefuls that 2016 won't be a repeat of the past, and they see replacing the caucus with a primary as the best way to accomplish that. Aside from the specific problems Nevada has faced in recent cycles, caucuses in general are much tougher to organize and require greater financial and time commitments from the candidates. In addition, caucuses typically attract only the most ardent party activists who understand how the process works. Traditional primaries, on the other hand, usually result in a broader electorate.
"My experience with caucuses is very few people are even aware of them, let alone participate in them," said Greg Ferraro, a Nevada-based Republican consultant.
Michael McDonald, the chairman of the Nevada Republican Party, told the Washington Examiner recently that he supports switching to a primary in 2016. "Our hope is that it will drive more people out and get more Republicans involved," he said. (McDonald did not respond to multiple requests from National Journal for comment.)
Republican National Committee spokeswoman Allison Moore said the committee will leave the decision of whether to use a primary or a caucus up to Nevada. But Jon Ralston, Nevada's top political journalist, reported that RNC Chairman Reince Priebus is "quietly supporting" the move. Plus, the RNC's post-2012 election autopsy encouraged the use of primaries over conventions and caucuses for the presidential race.
For now, most presidential campaigns—both official and prospective—aren't publicly weighing in on the possible switch. While some Republicans view a move away from a caucus as hurting Rand Paul's chances, given his access to his father's political network in the state, Paul spokesman Sergio Gor said the campaign is "confident that he will do very well in Nevada regardless of what system is utilized."
But the move to a primary is far from finalized. There are currently two bills in the GOP-controlled Nevada legislature that would allow for the switch, and members in both chambers will need to reach an agreement by the end of the session on June 1 for it to go into effect for the 2016 election. The Assembly version of the bill is more straightforward, giving the state parties the authority to use a presidential primary instead of a caucus. But the Senate's legislation not only explicitly calls for a presidential primary, it also moves all of the state's primaries up from June to February. (In both cases, the primary would be closed, meaning it would be open only to registered Republicans, not independents or Democrats.)
At the moment, it's unclear which version has a better chance of making it to the governor's desk. But Senate leadership is aiming to move its bill in the next week or two.
"I do think it will get done. "¦ There's certainly strong enough support to move the presidential contest from a caucus to a primary," said Robert Uithoven, a veteran Nevada Republican operative. "I think the only thing that could hold this up is whether to bring all of the races, the state and local races, to the earlier date."
And if one of the bills does ultimately make its way to Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval, Republicans expect him to sign it.
"The governor is open and willing to take a close look at changing our presidential selection process, especially when it enhances our status as an early state in nominating the next president of the United States," Sandoval spokeswoman Mari St. Martin said.
While Nevada Republicans are rallying around the idea of a primary, Nevada Democrats are expressing concern that such a move could threaten their early slot on the nominating calendar. Part of the reason the Democratic National Committee gave Nevada early-state status in 2008 was because it was a caucus state.
"This move only months before the caucuses are scheduled creates serious uncertainty and puts Nevada's long-term status as an early state in serious jeopardy," Nevada Democratic Party spokesman Zach Hudson said. "Proponents of these proposals are either being disingenuous about their true motives, or are completely ignorant of how primary-calendar politics work. Either way, proponents are playing with fire and are putting Nevada's importance in the presidential nominating calendar at serious risk long-term."
Another possible concern the state legislature will have to deal with: jumping New Hampshire. If Nevada were to hold a primary on Feb. 23, its two-week early voting period could begin three days before New Hampshire's primary, which traditionally comes second on the nominating calendar after the Iowa caucuses.
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Adam Wollner is an analyst for National Journal Hotline. Previously, he covered politics as an intern for NPR and the Center for Public Integrity. A native Wisconsinite, Wollner graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2013 with a bachelor degree in journalism and political science.