Forced back

Nevada’s GOP picked a fight it couldn’t win

Sparks Republican voters gathered at Reed High School for the 2008 Nevada presidential caucuses.

Sparks Republican voters gathered at Reed High School for the 2008 Nevada presidential caucuses.

photo by dennis myers

Nevada Republicans last weekend moved their presidential nominating caucuses back into February, in compliance with national party rules.

The Nevada GOP’s Oct. 5 decision to break party rules and move its caucuses to Jan. 14 triggered a rush forward by other January states. That came after Florida moved its primary to Jan. 31, and South Carolina then moved its primary to Jan. 21. But Nevada’s action was more provocative because it triggered legal consequences.

The main effect of the contretemps was to push several presidential candidates into taking a pledge to support New Hampshire over other presidential nominating events.

Under the Republican National Committee’s rules, there are four February states—Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada. They can hold their presidential primary elections or caucuses in February. All other states must wait until March. States that break those rules are faced with having half their national convention delegates decertified. One state breaking party rules does not license others to do the same, and national GOP officials had hoped the Nevada party would show restraint. The national party rules were adopted in an agreement among all states.

Nevada moved its caucuses to Jan. 14, more than a month before its original date of Feb. 18. That prompted Iowa, since 1972 the first caucuses in the nation, to move to Jan. 3. That put Iowa less than a week after New Hampshire, which activated a provision in that state’s law that its primary must be held no less than a week before “any similar contest.” New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardner said caucuses were such a similar event and that he would likely move his state’s traditionally first-in-the-nation primary election back into December.

Nevada Republican officials claimed they were “forced” to move their date by the Florida action, and several reporters around Nevada used that term outside of quotation marks in their stories, as though it were unquestionably true. Actually, it was Nevada that was doing the forcing. Nothing about the Florida action changed things in Nevada. The Nevada caucuses were created by the Democrats in 2008 to be the “first in the West,” and they remain so even with Florida’s new date.

While state GOP officials were claiming they were “forced,” that same term showed up repeatedly in news stories across the nation, but not in the fashion Nevada Republicans foresaw. In hundreds of news stories and candidate statements, it referred to Nevada forcing other states—particularly New Hampshire—into making changes in their dates and candidates to rejigger their strategies. “Nevada’s decision … has forced New Hampshire to consider holding its vote in December …” reported U.S. News and World Report. Only in home-state reports was Nevada treated as an injured party.

The Manchester Union Leader in New Hampshire reported, “When Nevada set Jan. 14 as the date for its caucuses, and Iowa set Jan. 3 for its caucuses, it forced New Hampshire to either move its primary date to December or break state law requiring that it be held at least seven days before any similar event.” (Emphasis added.) Nevada faced no such requirement—but the New Hampshire law was well known when the Nevada GOP changed its date.

Florida’s Republicans, incidentally, did not face the same considerations as the four February states. Republican National Committee rules penalize illegal dates by taking away only 50 percent of a state’s delegates (the Democrats decertify a state’s entire delegation). Even if Florida loses half its delegates, it will still have more than any of the four states and as many as Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada combined.

First in the West

The early Nevada caucuses were created as a western event by the Democratic Party under the sponsorship of U.S. Sen. Harry Reid. Reid said in 2007, “As the first test of the Hispanic and Western vote, the Nevada caucus will play an important role in selecting a nominee that can win in the West, which will be key to winning the White House in 2008.”

That same year, the state Democratic website read, “Nevada Democrats are on their way to a well-organized ‘First in the West’ presidential caucus on Saturday, January 19th.”

It was a notion embraced by the Nevada Republican Party this year. Indeed, its first reaction to the Florida date change was this headline on its website: “Despite Florida Move, Nevada Will Remain First in the West.” The position of the Nevada caucuses in that role was secure, no matter what Florida did. Republican National chair Reince Priebus reminded Nevada Republican chair Amy Tarkanian of this in an Oct. 20 letter after Nevada moved into January. He raised the specter of Nevada losing half its delegate votes and urged her to move to the first week of February: “[A] February 4th date will make Nevada’s caucuses not only the first in the West but also the only binding process occurring in a period of nearly a month. … This would ensure that issues of importance to westerners overall are featured in this campaign.”

When Nevada leaped into the middle of January, it sent dominos tumbling that Florida had not, and the Nevadans had put themselves into a competition they could not win. National Republican Party officials and leaders were upset by the unnecessary political brinksmanship. And there was little chance most of the candidates—except Mitt Romney, who won the Nevada caucuses in 2008—would take Nevada’s side. A competition between New Hampshire and Nevada was a no-brainer for them. Nevada simply does not have the cachet of New Hampshire or Iowa. The phrases “won the New Hampshire primary” and “won the Nevada caucuses” not only do not carry the same weight, they are not even in the same weight class. Candidates could not be expected to side with the Silver State if Nevada Republicans threatened the primacy of New Hampshire or Iowa.

“Iowa and New Hampshire are so ingrained in the minds of the public, and more importantly of the press, that the focus inevitably falls on them,” syndicated columnist Jules Witcover told the RN&R last week. “Also, after so many years, voters there take their role so seriously, and such a campaign apparatus is in place in both states, that the caucuses in Iowa and the primary in New Hampshire have taken on an outsize significance in each state. As gambling is to Nevada, presidential politics is to Iowa and New Hampshire.”

Typical was former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, who had previously played down the importance of Nevada (“Thanks a bunch, Rick,” RN&R, June 16). After Florida moved its date, Santorum said, “Nevada’s move has potentially forced the other early states to have primaries near Christmas—and that destroys the primary process.”

Candidates Jon Huntsman, Herman Cain, Michele Bachmann and Newt Gingrich joined Santorum in threatening to bail out of the Nevada caucuses. If Nevada Republicans went ahead with a January date, they faced a bleak prospect. Their caucuses would plainly be sharply reduced in significance without all candidates competing. Worse, the credibility of the state’s caucuses would be stigmatized, as happened to Florida and Michigan’s Democratic primaries in 2008 when most of the candidates stayed out because of illegal dates.

This year, the Nevada Democratic caucuses are pro-forma, since the party already has its candidate.