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Trump world gets testy as Ron DeSantis encroaches on his Nevada turf

Ahead of DeSantis' appearance at the Basque Fry — an event where lamb testicles are served — a Trump official quipped: “Not surprised Ron DeSantis is looking for a set of balls.”
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis makes his first trip to Nevada as a presidential candidate this weekend. Sam Wolfe for The Washington Post via Getty Images file

Nevada Republicans have showered Donald Trump with love for years. Since the former president won the 2016 caucuses decisively, he has gained unwavering loyalty from the state GOP, whose chair is so aligned with Trump that he served as a so-called fake elector in 2020.

But general elections in the battleground state weren’t kind to Trump; he lost Nevada in two consecutive presidential campaigns. And as of now, the GOP primary is changing its electoral format for 2024, moving away from the caucuses that benefited him.

As Nevada, an early primary state, starts getting more attention — beginning with a major political event this weekend — Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ team is holding up all of those facts as evidence that Republicans need to move beyond Trump if the state is to have a chance at defeating a Democrat in 2024.

“Trump hasn’t won Nevada the last two go-arounds,” said former state Attorney General Adam Laxalt, a 2022 Senate candidate who is heading a super PAC backing DeSantis. “I was a two-time Trump chair. I don’t see a path for him to win Nevada in a general election. Those voters are not coming back.” 

Laxalt made the comments in an interview in advance of DeSantis’ visit to the state this weekend, the centerpiece of which is his speech at the annual Basque Fry, a popular event that draws thousands of conservatives from around the state. 

The annual festival is steeped in history, modeled after an annual fry held by Laxalt’s grandfather Paul Laxalt, the legendary former Nevada governor and U.S. senator. The political event, centered on the stewing and frying of lamb testicles, has become a draw for conservatives, and it has hosted the likes of Ted Cruz, Scott Walker and Mike Pence. Hundreds of pounds of the so-called lamb fries are expected to be consumed. 

A strategist for the front-running Trump, fresh from an arraignment this week in federal court, punched down on DeSantis and rejected the suggestion that he could encroach on Trump’s turf.

“Not surprised Ron DeSantis is looking for a set of balls,” said Chris LaCivita, a senior adviser to Trump’s campaign. 

“So Adam Laxalt, who lost the governor’s race in ’18 and lost the Senate race in ’22, is lecturing President Trump?” LaCivita added. “That’s the pot calling the kettle black.”

Erin Perrine, the communications director for Never Back Down, the pro-DeSantis super PAC, shot back at LaCivita: “The Trump team’s obsession with men’s genitalia is more perverted than a woke grooming book.”

Laxalt lost by less than 8,000 votes to Democratic Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto in November, a loss that he said taught him some lessons about how Republicans handled voting in the state. 

“We need to compete on the turf the Democrats are competing in,” Laxalt said, referring to ballot harvesting and ballot drop-off boxes. “They’re here for the 2024 election. I know Gov. DeSantis said this on the record, and I share the same sentiment: We’re going to have to compete in ballot harvesting and these methods — and everything could count.”  

But Laxalt also pointed to DeSantis’ re-election as governor as evidence that he could rule with a conservative fist and still attract female voters and independents, which he held up as a selling point to Republicans interested in moving away from Trump.

Asked how DeSantis’ signing of a six-week abortion ban in Florida might sit with general election voters, given abortion’s sizable role in Democratic victories last fall and the state’s more moderate stance on the issue, Laxalt demurred, saying voters were looking for a change from President Joe Biden and his policies.

Taylor Budowich, the CEO of MAGA Inc., the leading pro-Trump super PAC, laughed when he was told about DeSantis’ allies’ confidence in Nevada.

“There’s no sign that he can win in any state,” Budowich said in an interview. “It’s evident in their kind of ham-handed approach. They’re just largely spinning their wheels without articulating a path to winning a single state.” 

The 2024 Nevada primary is set to shift to a traditional, state-run primary instead of the caucus contest Trump won in the past. The state Republican Party is challenging that legally, asking that it be allowed to operate its own party-run caucus.

Conventional wisdom dictates a caucus would be advantageous to Trump, given that the party running the process has so loyally lined up behind him. The state party chair, Michael McDonald, testified before a federal grand jury this week in a Jan. 6-related investigation. McDonald, a close ally of Trump’s, had his cellphone seized as part of the investigation, and he visited Trump’s Mar-a-Lago in Florida this year with a contingent of other Nevada Republicans.   

DeSantis lands Friday in Reno, where he will visit a Veterans of Foreign Wars hall, as well as attend a rodeo. He headlines the Basque Fry on Saturday. 

This weekend’s travel marks DeSantis’ first foray into Nevada as an officially declared candidate; he spoke in Las Vegas in March as he was promoting his recently published book. It is the last of the four early states he has visited. Trump hasn’t campaigned in the state this year. Senior Trump aides, including LaCivita, addressed more than 400 members of the Clark County GOP last month and spoke about how the activists could help Trump win there, according to the campaign.

Collectively, though, GOP presidential hopefuls have placed higher emphasis on the other early states: Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. 

DeSantis-aligned observers say his campaign and the supporting super PAC are already laying the groundwork in the state, including deploying door-to-door canvassers, hiring staff members, sending out targeted mailers and reaching out to volunteers. Headlining the Basque Fry shouldn’t be underestimated, they say. 

“It’s huge,” said Jeff Stone, a Republican state senator who is volunteering on DeSantis’ campaign. “You’re going to have between 5,000 and 6,000 people coalescing in Gardnerville to see what I think to be the front-runner next to President Trump’s come into the space. And I think when people hear his agenda, I think when people see his authenticity and his communicative skills at the microphone and his passion for this country, I think he’s going to win people over.”  

Zachary Moyle, a former state GOP executive director who worked in Nevada for John Kasich in 2016 and Rich Santorum in 2012, said the DeSantis team is already extensively targeting active party members. He cited family members who have already received a half-dozen mailers and two requests to attend a town hall.

“He’s been very visible, at least within the GOP community,” said Moyle, who is unaffiliated with any 2024 campaign as of yet. “I don’t think a lot of Republicans would say, ‘Who’s Ron DeSantis?’”

Never Back Down, the super PAC supporting DeSantis, is the only candidate-affiliated GOP group that has spent money on ads in Nevada so far, with its most recent spot highlighting the Basque Fry, according to AdImpact, an advertising analytics firm. 

MAGA Inc. called attention to the spot in an email blast this week. Spokesperson Karoline Leavitt characterized it as a desperate attempt “just to get people to show up for DeSantis’ events.”

“Worse yet,” added Leavitt, noting that paid admission is required to enter the Basque Fry, “you have to PAY to see him.”

The Basque Fry is a fundraiser to advance conservative causes and candidates in the state. Laxalt's Morning in Nevada PAC has sponsored the event in recent years. This year, Never Back Down is joining as a co-host.