Las Vegas Sun

May 20, 2019

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As Florida prepares to cut in line, Nevada GOP considers earlier caucus date

Sun Coverage

Florida could shake up the presidential election calendar by moving the state’s primaries to Jan. 31 -- ahead of all other states on the schedule, including Nevada’s Feb. 18 caucus.

The move would violate Republican National Committee rules, which say only Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina may hold their primaries or caucuses before March 6, known as Super Tuesday.

But the threat of losing half their delegates by violating party rules didn’t stop Florida from making a similar move in 2008.

That presents Nevada officials with a dilemma: Stick with Feb. 18, and lose its early state influence, or jump ahead and suffer the consequences -- abbreviated planning time and the potential loss of an already small number of delegates.

“We really don’t want to break the rules, but we also want to stand our ground,” Nevada GOP Chairwoman Amy Tarkanian said in an interview Wednesday. “We matter. There’s no way they can ignore us.”

The Nevada caucuses could be set as early as Jan. 21, party officials said.

Before Florida threatened to cut in line, Nevada was not only the first contest in the West but also the first swing state to pick a presidential candidate. A national debate and party conference next month and a real race in local presidential polls had Nevada Republicans assured the caucuses would be relevant.

But so far, most Republican presidential campaigns have done a good job sidelining Nevada.

“I don’t think Nevada is as important as we thought it could have been because the (Mitt) Romney effort is so difficult to overcome,” longtime Nevada GOP strategist Sig Rogich said, referring to the former Massachusetts governor’s dominating victory in the state in 2008. “Why waste a lot of money to finish a distant second?”

Were Nevada to move up its caucuses to head off Florida, it would leave less time for candidates to campaign and build an organization in the state, lessening the likelihood that candidates who haven’t yet set up shop devote time and the resources to Nevada.

“They’re going to come in October (for the debate) and maybe make one or two other stops between now and the caucus, if that many,” said Chuck Muth, a conservative strategist based in Las Vegas. “From a campaign standpoint, it’s all about delegates. In Nevada you can win maybe 15 delegates, but in Florida you could win a whole lot more.”

But Nevada GOP leaders aren’t resigning themselves to a diminished status or accepting that the Florida move is a done deal.

After spending much of the afternoon Wednesday on the phone with Iowa and South Carolina officials, Tarkanian issued a statement calling Florida’s anticipated decision “disappointing and frankly, disrespectful” to other states and the national nominating process, and pledging to follow New Hampshire’s lead: the Nevada GOP has pegged its caucus date to the Saturday following New Hampshire’s primary.

Florida votes Friday to set the state’s primary date; by Republican National Committee rules all states must pick their primary and caucus dates by Saturday. Many states are likely to miss that deadline as they debate whether to alter their calendars in response to Florida.

How long it takes for Nevada to determine its response depends on what happens 2,500 miles away in New Hampshire.

New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardner told the Las Vegas Sun Wednesday night that no one’s going to be rushing to make a decision.

“I’ve set [the date] as late as the third week of December,” said Gardner, who has been in charge of setting the state’s primary since 1976. “I’m not in any rush to set the date...I wait until it’s the time to preserve the tradition of New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation primary.”

That could keep Nevada caucus organizers waiting -- a prospect Tarkanian admitted was a little nerve-wracking.

“But that’s why we hired this firm” to run the Nevada caucuses, she said, referring to Public Affairs, a political consulting firm that has organized several Iowa caucuses. “Even if we do have to move, we are ready to go, we’ll be up and running. The only concern would be our venues...if we have to move on short notice, hopefully those same venues will be available.”

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