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New Hampshire official blames Nevada for presidential primary problems

Republican debate

Jim Cole / AP

Republican presidential candidates, from left, former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., Texas Gov. Rick Perry, businessman Herman Cain, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum are seen at the debate at Dartmouth College on Tuesday, Oct. 11, 2011, in Hanover, N.H.

Sun Coverage

If New Hampshire’s primary doesn’t remain first in the nation, Secretary of State Bill Gardner wrote today, it will be an affront to tradition, democracy and the American way — forcing him to move his state’s primary date to early December.

And if that happens, he says, it will be Nevada’s fault.

Early primary and caucus states have advanced the dates of their contests to move ahead of Florida, which jumped the order and scheduled its primary for Jan. 31 last month. South Carolina selected Saturday, Jan. 21, Nevada selected Saturday, Jan. 14, and Iowa set a tentative date of Jan. 3: a range that would seem to leave New Hampshire with Jan. 10.

But that causes a problem: New Hampshire state law declares that no state can hold a “similar contest” within seven days of the New Hampshire primary, meaning Nevada’s too close for comfort.

In his statement, Gardner lamented that Iowa had claimed Jan. 3, but did not challenge it. He saved the blame for Nevada.

“The parties do have an important role in that they can discourage other states from trying to leapfrog onto our tradition. Right now, the problem is the date of Nevada,” Gardner wrote.

“We cannot allow the political process to squeeze us into a date that wedges us by just a few days between two major caucus states,” he continued writing. “IT’S REALLY UP TO NEVADA. If Nevada does not accept a date of Tuesday, January 17th or later for its caucus, it leaves New Hampshire no choice but to consider December of this year.”

Gardner called the dates of Tuesday, Dec. 13 and Tuesday, Dec. 6th “realistic options” — but the letter also seemed to imply an underlying threat.

The question: Will Nevada’s GOP let itself be strong-armed into another caucus date to preserve New Hampshire’s claim to tradition.

Nevada GOP national committeeman and former Gov. Bob List says no way. “We tried to communicate with New Hampshire to coordinate our dates...he was the one who insisted we proceed to pick our date ahead of them,” List said, calling Gardner’s letter “a little weird.”

“I don’t envy his problem, but it’s certainly not our problem,” List continued.

Even if Nevada wanted to move its caucuses, there aren’t many options that wouldn’t rob the state of its early status: the Nevada GOP board voted on the Jan. 14 date, and with South Carolina on the 21st and Florida on the 31st, there are few options left.

Gardner’s suggestion of Tuesday, Jan. 17 is implausible, because while primaries are quick drop-in affairs, caucuses can take up to several hours. That doesn’t preclude other states from holding caucuses during the week: Iowa, most famously, usually holds its caucuses on a Tuesday. But caucuses are a time-honored tradition in Iowa; in Nevada, they’re barely two election cycles old.

Gardner is a force in politics that seems part of a generation gone by: whereas other states set their primary and caucus dates by board vote, or committee decision, Gardner is a one-man show. He has been picking the dates since 1976, and he does what he wants each time.

“I’m not in any rush to set the date...and I’ve never had to change it,” Gardner told the Las Vegas Sun last month, as New Hampshire, Iowa, Nevada, and South Carolina -- the only four states the RNC has authorized to go before March 6, 2012, more commonly known as “Super Tuesday” -- braced themselves for Florida’s date switch.

But List wondered aloud why Gardner waited so long that Iowa ultimately made off with the date that would have solved his problems.

“Some time went by they could have picked the third if they had wished to do so,” List said of New Hampshire. “They’re constrained by their own statute, and there’s nothing we can do about that.”

Under RNC rules, holding a primary or caucus earlier than February comes at a price: making the change costs states half of the delegates they would otherwise have sent to the Republican party convention next summer.

All four early states have a relatively low number of delegates anyway, and opted to preserve their early influence over their full complement of votes.

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