RENO, Nev. - Former President Donald Trump's push to bend state Republican parties to his will — and gain an advantage in his effort to return to the White House — is coming to a head in Nevada.
The state GOP, which is led by Trump allies, is insisting on moving forward with a presidential caucus on Feb. 8 despite a new state law that set a primary election two days earlier. Caucuses, which typically reward grassroots support and organizing, are expected to benefit Trump given his solid grip on the GOP's most loyal voters.
But the party is poised to go further on Saturday when it's expected to approve plans that some Nevada Republicans and Trump rivals argue would confuse and anger voters and further tilt the caucus for the former president. The proposed rules, copies of which were obtained by The Associated Press, include provisions to bar any candidate from the caucus if they're on the primary ballot. They would also restrict super PACs, like the one Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is relying on, from trying to bolster support for candidates in a caucus.
The result, some Republicans and Trump rivals argue, will be chaos at a crucial point in the presidential nomination process. Voters could be confused about which election to participate in and risk being disenfranchised if they vote in the primary. The Nevada GOP says it will only recognize — and award delegates to presidential candidates — based on the results of the caucus.
"Trump hates rigged elections, except when he’s doing the rigging, like he’s doing in Nevada," said Ken Cuccinelli, who was the deputy secretary of Homeland Security during the Trump administration and is now the founder of the Never Back Down super PAC, which is backing DeSantis’ campaign.
Other campaigns have privately voiced similar concerns. And the Nevada Republican Club, which says it represents about 400 members in the state, sent a letter to local GOP officials this month urging them to speak out about the potential problems with the state having both a primary and a caucus and to defeat the proposed rule changes.
Having both will "frustrate, anger and confuse Nevada’s Republican voters," and create bad publicity for the Nevada GOP, the club leaders wrote in the letter. They also questioned whether there are enough volunteers to staff a caucus across 17 counties and if the party should spend its money on other goals, like voter registration and getting out the vote in the general election.
"This process will hurt the Republican Party and our candidates in 2024," the leaders added. "The Nevada Republican Party will give average voters the impression they don’t care about them or their votes."
Nevada GOP Chairman Michael McDonald didn't return multiple phone calls and text messages. He previously told the AP that the party pushed the caucus, which they have before, because the Democrat-controlled state Legislature would not pass a law requiring proof of identification at the ballot box, instead of just when registering to vote, among other measures.
The Trump campaign didn't respond to a message seeking comment.
Jim DeGraffenreid, a Republican National Committeeman for the Nevada GOP, declined to discuss the proposals that the party was considering, referring to them as "housekeeping." But he called the idea that Nevada’s process is skewed for Trump "one of the most ridiculous things that I think I’ve ever heard."
"It appears that Donald Trump is the last person that needs a thumb on the scale," DeGraffenreid said, citing the former president’s polling and fundraising strength. "It is not in our interest to rig anything for anyone, especially for someone who apparently doesn’t need to have anything rigged for him."
Still, the dynamic is a reminder of how Trump is approaching the 2024 campaign far differently than his first bid in 2016. During his initial run as a political neophyte, Trump and his team had little understanding of state parties and the intricate — yet significant — role they play in shaping rules that govern how delegates are awarded to the eventual Republican nominee.
That's not the case this time.
In Michigan, where the state GOP has become increasingly loyal to Trump, the party’s leadership this year voted to change the state’s longtime process of allocating all its presidential delegates based on an open primary election. Under a new plan widely expected to benefit Trump, 16 of the state’s 55 delegates will be awarded based on the results of a Feb. 27 primary. The other 39 will be distributed four days later in closed-door caucus meetings of party activists.
In Idaho, one of the country’s most Republican states, a new law passed by the state legislature earlier this year eliminated the presidential primary process by moving the state elections to May as lawmakers tried to consolidate the voting calendar. The party’s state central committee decided to instead hold caucuses on March 2.
Trump's ties to the Nevada GOP are especially deep, with the organization led by longstanding allies, including McDonald and DeGraffenreid. Both served as fake presidential electors in 2020 as part of a scheme in Nevada and other battleground states to try to overturn Trump’s election loss. The party’s executive director, Alida Benson, left that job this summer to run Trump's campaign in the state.
With Trump seeming to have such a heavy advantage in the caucus, some Republicans have speculated that other GOP presidential candidates might forgo trying to win the state’s relatively small number of GOP delegates, instead opting to run in the primary.
A primary run by the state of Nevada would offer early and absentee voting and same-day registration, processes that typically broaden participation. A win in that election, while not helping candidates collect some delegates needed to secure the nomination, could help them gain attention and early momentum by proving their electability among a broader pool of voters.
So far, Vivek Ramaswamy is the only presidential candidate to officially file for the caucus, though Trump is expected to join him.
Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley’s campaign did not respond to questions about Nevada and representatives for South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott and former Vice President Mike Pence declined to say whether they’ll try to run in one or both processes in Nevada, which is scheduled to vote third, after Iowa and New Hampshire.
"We’re exploring all options in Nevada to best position Ron DeSantis to be the next president," DeSantis’ Communications Director Andrew Romeo said in a statement.
Never Back Down, which was organizing support for DeSantis, pulled its door-knockers from Nevada and other states — a move that Cuccinelli said was prompted in Nevada because of the GOP’s plans. The party's proposed rules would bar the super PAC's employees from attending any caucuses, conventions or local precinct meetings, bar them from obtaining lists of caucus attendees and bar them from handing out pamphlets outside of meetings, among other restrictions.
"If he’s going to keep putting his thumb on the scale and then put his arm on the scale and then climb on the frickin' scale," Cuccinelli said of Trump, "You know, does it really make sense to pour resources into an uphill, unfair fight like that versus other states?"
David Gibbs, president of the Nevada Republican Club, said he's not concerned about criticism that the process could favor Trump. He worried, however, that the dueling election processes could disenfranchise voters — especially those who may wonder why all of the major candidates aren't on their ballot when it’s time to vote.
"I like caucuses. I actually prefer caucus to a primary election," he said. "But doing both is not good. And that’s what we face right now."
Price reported from New York. Associated Press writers Jill Colvin in New York and Meg Kinnard in Columbia, S.C. contributed to this report.