Caucus tactics

Seven months out, casinos and candidates plot their course

In February 2012, Republican caucusgoers at Dilworth Middle School in Sparks checked  listings to find out where in the school their precincts gathered.

In February 2012, Republican caucusgoers at Dilworth Middle School in Sparks checked listings to find out where in the school their precincts gathered.


The nation’s casino lobby is running in the 2016 caucuses and primaries.

Republican Donald Trump is busily alienating Latinos and GOP leaders.

And Rand Paul, by embracing Cliven Bundy, may have sewn up the state’s small counties where few of the state’s voters reside.

The Des Moines Register—the leading newspaper in the first presidential caucus state—reported that the American Gaming Association will be active in presidential primaries and caucuses in pushing its agenda on behalf of the nation’s casino industry.

It’s a far cry from the 1990s, when evangelical Christian organizations quizzed Republican candidates on their stands on allowing gambling and on whether they employed the euphemism “gaming” in their speeches.

“This isn’t your grandfather’s casino industry,” Freeman said. “There are nearly 1,000 casinos across the United States. But we still find perceptions out there as to what gaming is, or what it may be.”

Freeman may be poor-mouthing for strategic reasons. After all, only a fifth of the states still do not have a stake in gambling. Most presidential candidates understand that state and local governments are invested in casino jobs and revenues. What is more likely at issue is getting the candidates on the record early on the casino lobby’s policy agenda.

“We think we have an opportunity as the candidates are crisscrossing the state to introduce them to the industry to begin to learn what the industry does, how we operate and what the local perspective is, so they are better equipped when they are back in Washington, whether it is the White House or some other capacity,” Freeman said.

He cited the February 2009 incident when President Obama said in remarks to Indiana bankers, “When times are tough, you tighten your belts. You don’t go buying a boat when you can barely pay your mortgage. You don’t blow a bunch of cash in Vegas when you’re trying to save for college. You prioritize. You make tough choices.”

Some Nevada officials and leaders were distressed by the comments, and Freeman essentially said that if he and industry representatives get to candidates in the primaries and caucuses, they can teach them to avoid characterizing the industry that way.

Meanwhile, Trump’s comments on Latinos have hurt his chances in Nevada, where he already had problems. His attacks on immigrants undercut the efforts of some GOP leaders to attract a greater percentage of the Latino vote, as Ronald Reagan (45 percent) and George W. Bush (44 percent) succeeded in doing by avoiding criticism of immigrants. In addition, the crudity of his comments (“Who is doing the raping, Don?”) are reminiscent of the rationale for many lynchings of African-Americans in the South in the 20th century, and threaten to make Trump another Pete Wilson—a 1990s California governor whose war on immigrants alienated Latinos from the GOP for decades. Latinos make up about a fifth of Nevada voters.

Nevada political analyst Fred Lokken found Trump’s actions difficult to understand.

“Politically, I really don’t understand why he is doing this,” he said. “He’s decided, I guess, to own this issue. It’s fracturing the party right now. And whoever’s nominated in the fall will be reminded constantly that their party produced Donald Trump.”

Lokken suggests it may be a way for Trump to position himself to be a commentator when the campaign is over.

“Trump is a showman,” he said. “He may be doing it to become a pundit. Donald Trump is the poster child for alternative motives. This is a guy who promotes himself all the time.”

Trump also has frayed relations with Nevada GOP leaders. On May 29, 2012, he appeared on stage in Las Vegas to endorse Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney. Unfortunately, earlier in the day, Trump had appeared on CNN to talk about Barack Obama’s birth certificate: “You won’t report it, Wolf [Blitzer], but many people do not think it was authentic,” Trump said. “His mother was not in the hospital. There are many other things that came out and, frankly, if you would report it accurately, I think you’d probably get better ratings than you’re getting, which are pretty small.”

Headlines across the nation appeared, like this one in the Arizona Republic: “Romney clinches, gets upstaged by ’birther’ Trump.”

Nevada Republican leaders, already struggling with divisions in their ranks, were angered by Trump’s blunder. Just as bad, a few weeks earlier that year, Trump seemed to take credit for Romney’s second win in the Nevada caucuses: “And a lot of people are giving me credit for that and I will accept that credit,” Trump told Fox News.

Last week, Rand Paul was similarly upstaged when he appeared shoulder to shoulder with Cliven Bundy, who in April 2014 led an armed standoff against federal officials who were seeking to collect unpaid grazing fees from Bundy, some of the arrears dating back two decades (see “Another threat,” Upfront, facing page).

Paul’s Bundy problem was exacerbated when he met privately with the rancher, who later seemed to speak for Paul on public land issues, prompting Paul’s staff to hastily say that only Paul spoke for Paul.

Lokken was as puzzled by Paul’s actions as by Trump’s.

“He’s getting some bad advice from someone, a distorted picture of what is going on here,” he said. “This could really haunt him.”

While Bundy has considerable support in the small counties, Paul likely already has entree to those votes. Expanding his appeal beyond them could be difficult because Nevada is an overwhelmingly urban state where voters in the metro areas are not necessarily as bewitched by Bundy as Paul is.

Initially a Bundy supporter, Paul had distanced himself from Bundy in April 2014 after Bundy made comments about “Negroes” being better off under slavery than under public programs.

“They abort their young children, they put their young men in jail, because they never learned how to pick cotton,” Bundy told the New York Times. “And I’ve often wondered, are they better off as slaves, picking cotton and having a family life and doing things, or are they better off under government subsidy? They didn’t get no more freedom. They got less freedom.”

“His remarks on race are offensive and I wholeheartedly disagree with him,” Paul said then.

But subsequently, Rand has romanced Bundy and his followers.

Bundy left the Republican Party the month after the standoff to join Nevada’s small Independent American Party, a remnant of George Wallace’s 1968 third party.