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September 22, 2017

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Damon Political Report

Why Nevada GOP might be better off without an early caucus


Leila Navidi

Voters express frustration at disorganization while signing in for the Republican presidential caucus at Green Valley High School in Henderson on Saturday, Feb. 4, 2012.

GOP Caucus in Clark County

John Metzguer, center, and Leroy King, right, both of Henderson, sign in for the Republican presidential caucus at Green Valley High School in Henderson on Saturday, Feb. 4, 2012. Launch slideshow »

The question begging to be asked in the wake of the Nevada GOP’s chaotic presidential caucus isn’t simply whether the Republican National Committee should bestow early-state status on Nevada ever again.

The more fundamental question is: Should the state party even ask for it.

The state party’s executive director, David Gallagher, was the first to weigh in.

“It doesn’t matter if we don’t get the early caucus,” Gallagher said last week. “We don’t need it to win, and it can actually hurt us. Those events suck up money that otherwise the party would take. It put us in the hole last time, and we’ll barely be in the black this time.”

Gallagher’s point: It may be fun to be in the spotlight with something like a national convention or an early presidential nominating contest, but it distracts from the party’s true mission of winning elections.

His views weren’t greeted with much enthusiasm.

Most Nevada Republican Party officials are trying to put a good face on the mishandling of the caucus rather than acknowledge missed opportunities or weaknesses in planning and execution of the caucuses.

Party leaders highlight that ballots were cast and counted successfully. (That, of course, wasn’t accomplished until late Sunday night, a day after Nevada Republicans attended their caucuses.)

And they say they are confident that Nevada will remain among the first four primaries in 2016.

They also aren’t questioning whether that’s best for the party.

“We picked up 4,200 volunteers in the course of this caucus,” Republican national committeeman Bob List said. “We out-registered the Democrats in January. We took in money throughout this period. We are positioned, I think, very nicely as we go forward here. It was a success in my judgment.”

Certainly an early caucus can be used to build a party, register voters, generate enthusiasm and raise money. Democrats proved that in 2008.

But Republicans have failed to replicate that success.

In fact, the Nevada Republican Party was significantly stronger last decade, when it wasn’t playing for the national spotlight associated with an early caucus. In 2002, Republicans swept all six of the state’s constitutional offices, had the majority in the state Senate and were within four seats of a majority in the Assembly. The GOP’s registered voters outnumbered Democrats and they won two presidential races in 2000 and 2004.

Gallagher hails from Ohio, where former Ohio Republican Chairman Bob Bennett urged party leaders to forego chasing conventions and early primaries in order to focus on the party’s mission.

Nevada Caucus Count

Volunteers count and record caucus totals at Clark County GOP headquarters Sunday morning. Launch slideshow »

“Good state parties do two things: They register Republicans to vote and they deliver them to the polls,” said Joe Brezny, a former Republican operative who worked in Ohio and Nevada, describing Bennett’s philosophy. “If you look at really good parties, they may do some other things, but they are really good at those two things.”

Unlike Democrats, Republicans in Nevada haven’t figured out how to channel the power of an early caucus to those ends. Worse, they appear to fall on their face while attempting it.

Such difficulties were foretold more than four decades ago, when former Gov. Paul Laxalt vetoed a bill that would have created a Nevada primary to hopscotch New Hampshire, which is the second state in the nation to hold a presidential nominating contest.

“The governor expressed his only serious concern to be the possibility of a resort-oriented state such as ours being unable to withstand the glare of publicity attendant to being the earliest primary in the nation,” the bill’s sponsor Assemblyman Ty Hilbrecht explained to the 1969 Legislature.

So far, most in the party dismiss Gallagher’s suggestion that Nevada abandon its early status.

“When it’s run well, it does a lot of good things for the party,” GOP strategist Robert Uithoven said.

UNR political scientist Eric Herzik, a Republican, said the focus should be on improving the process, not abandoning it.

“A caucus might not be ideal, but it can be used to conduct ... state party business,” he said. “The downsides are it can reduce turnout, it can be divisive and if you can’t pull it off right you don’t look very good. Unfortunately, Republicans hit all three of those negatives this time.”

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