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Nevada Republicans brace for confusion with competing presidential primary contests

The state's Republican primary election and the Republican Party's caucuses will be held two days apart, with two different sets of candidates competing in each.
Voters wait in line to cast their ballots at Desert Breeze Community Center on Nov. 8, 2022 in Las Vegas.
Nevada officially has a state-run presidential primary election, but the state Republican Party is holding its own caucuses, instead.David Becker for The Washington Post / Getty Images file

Nevada could be in for a bit of a mess in February when it comes time to choose its Republican presidential candidate.

The state’s presidential primary will unfold in two separate contests, with two different outcomes, two days apart. 

That’s because the field has split on how it has decided to compete in Nevada. Three of the top-tier candidates in the GOP presidential primary — former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley, South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott and former Vice President Mike Pence — have filed to compete in Nevada’s state-run primary election on Feb. 6. That means they cannot join the rest of the top candidates, including polling front-runner Donald Trump, in the party-run caucuses that take place Feb. 8. 

Only the caucus results are binding; those alone will determine how delegates will be awarded. But some presidential campaigns contend that the Nevada Republican Party is all in for Trump and don’t trust the process. 

The candidates are betting that if they win the state-run primary, the news bounce could bring momentum that’s more valuable — in the final early state of South Carolina and potentially beyond — than the delegates they’ll lose out on. 

Those taking part in the caucus include Trump, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, Vivek Ramaswamy, Chris Christie and North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum. 

DeSantis is taking part in the caucus despite complaints by his campaign and allies that Trump has an advantage under that system.

“It is disappointing that the Nevada Republican Party changed the rules against the will of the people just to benefit one candidate,” DeSantis spokesman Andrew Romeo said in a statement. “However, Ron DeSantis will fight to overcome these tactics.” 

The double electoral situation is happening because of a recent change in state law, driven by a Democratic-led Legislature that implemented state-run primaries with regular ballot voting.

The Republican Party in the state objected, saying it worried about voting integrity under a state system; instead, it insisted on running its own caucus. The party attempted to stop the state from holding its primary but lost in court. The judge, however, told the party it could still hold its caucuses.

A caucus primary run by the party is considered advantageous to Trump because state GOP Chair Michael McDonald has had a close relationship with the former president. He acted as a false elector for Trump in 2020, his phone was seized by federal authorities as part of an investigation into election interference, and the Nevada state party’s executive committee earlier this year traveled to Mar-a-Lago. McDonald has told NBC News that if DeSantis invited the committee to the governor’s mansion, members would accept. 

In previous remarks to NBC News, the Ron DeSantis-aligned super PAC Never Back Down called McDonald a “Trump puppet”— an allegation with which McDonald took issue. 

“In Nevada’s history, there have only been 3 GOP presidential primaries in the past 160 years. The caucus is what Nevadans have traditionally used, and will continue to use, to elect their Presidential nominee,” McDonald said in a text message Monday. “The caucus is in line with Republican principles, particularly fiscal conservatism, as it has no cost to taxpayers."

“All serious candidates are participating in the First In The West Caucus as it’s the only method to earn delegates to secure the nomination and offers a level playing field to all candidates not just those that dominate the media markets,” McDonald added. 

McDonald went on to say that while the DeSantis campaign and allies were most vocal in charging that the party’s rules favored Trump, “his campaign never took action to influence these rules.”

“All official campaigns were invited to the [state central committee] meeting where these common sense, RNC-supported rules changes were voted on, and passed by overwhelming majority,” McDonald said. 

Supporters listen as former President Donald Trump speaks  on July 8, 2023, in Las Vegas.
The Nevada Republican Party has faced accusations from some campaigns that it's biased toward Trump.John Locher / AP

Still, there is a potential for voter confusion, given that in the state primary, mail ballots will automatically be mailed to Republican voters. That could give some voters the impression that their votes in the primary are binding, and voters may not realize that the caucuses are still ahead. 

That all was taken into account during a recent Nevada state central committee meeting at which members voted to move forward with the caucuses. A member of that committee, David Gibbs, also a former Clark County chair, brought concerns that the two systems would confuse voters.  

“I think that’s still possible,” Gibbs said Monday of the potential for confusion. “There were those of us who had the position that this was a bad idea, but they had the vote and went ahead with the caucuses. Even though the outcome wasn’t what we wanted, I was happy my position was heard.”

Gibbs added that the party was taking steps to educate Republican voters on the differences between the caucuses and the primary. The Nevada secretary of state's office has also said it will work to explain the differences between the two elections.