AP Politics

Dueling GOP presidential nominating contests in Nevada raise concerns about voter confusion

RENO, Nev. (AP) — Republicans in Nevada could have two chances next year to decide who they want to be their party’s presidential nominee. The catch: Only one will count.

The Nevada GOP is insisting on holding its own caucus despite a new state law calling for a primary election, a move critics say is designed to benefit former President Donald Trump. The competing contests are likely to confuse some and require GOP campaigns to spend extra time and money educating voters in one of the earliest states to cast ballots for the presidential nomination.

The results in the GOP primary are unlikely to matter because the state Republican Party has said it will use its party-run caucus to determine which candidate will receive the state’s delegates to the Republican National Convention. An official caucus date has not yet been set but is expected to be around the same time as the Feb. 6 primary, which falls after the Iowa caucus and primaries in New Hampshire and South Carolina.

“I do believe it’s going to create confusion among the voters,” said Tami Rae Spero, the state’s longest-serving county clerk who is based in rural Humboldt County, which leans heavily Republican.

Spero said she already is preparing a voter-education strategy that will include interviews with local news outlets and social media posts, although she’s not quite sure how to explain that the primary results may not matter in nominating a Republican presidential candidate.

It’s not the first time states and political parties have proposed dueling nominating methods. In 2016, Washington state spent $9 million on a meaningless primary after the state Democratic Party held its own caucus to determine a nominee and Trump’s Republican challengers had all dropped out by the time voters were scheduled to cast ballots.

Some state parties have even relied on multiple contests. For years, the “Texas Two-Step” featured both a caucus and presidential primary to divide delegates before it was discontinued before the 2016 election. A similar strategy is likely to play out next year in Michigan, one of several states where the Republican Party is controlled by Trump allies who have altered delegate rules in ways seen as favorable to the former president.

In Nevada, caucuses had been the preferred method until state Democrats pushed through a law in 2021 moving to a primary, a system that tends to get higher rates of voter participation. Primaries allow early voting and mail voting while using polling places that are familiar to voters.

A caucus has traditionally been limited to in-person participation, although parties experimented with alternative voting methods during the COVID-19 pandemic. While primaries are run by local election officials and paid for by the state, political parties are responsible for planning and administering caucuses.

With primaries, campaigns can rely more on TV ads to generate support. For a caucus, campaigns must organize their backers locally — from Las Vegas and Reno to Nevada’s far-flung rural communities.

Nevada Republicans had sought to block the primary, but a state judge last month denied the request. State Republican Party Chairman Michael McDonald said the Nevada GOP is considering other options to eliminate the presidential primary, including appealing the case to the Nevada Supreme Court.

McDonald has long been friendly with Trump and was among those who signed certificates falsely stating Trump had won Nevada in 2020. In a recent interview, he criticized Democrats for failing to consider Republican Gov. Joe Lombardo’s proposal to implement a voter ID requirement and said the party-run caucus was a “more pure process for the electorate to be involved in.”

“They have that opportunity to come and voice their opinions about their candidate, and also to hear about the other candidates,” he said.

Critics from both parties have said caucuses make it harder for many people to vote, particularly those who don’t have the time to spend hours debating their picks, work irregular hours or have limited English skills. Some said the tight-knit settings are ripe environments for groups to exert political pressure or even intimidate their opponents — although McDonald said caucus ballots will be private.

The Nevada attorney general’s office made similar points when arguing on behalf of the state’s top election official to defend the 2021 law in court.

Former Nevada GOP chair Amy Tarkanian, who helped organize the party’s 2012 caucus, cited a number of problems with a caucus system, including voters who are unable to participate or who can’t stay throughout the drawn-out process.

“We left a caucus for a good reason,” she said. “It was confusing.”

A frequent critic of the state party she once ran, she said she was disappointed to see Nevada pushing a nominating process that appears to benefit Trump.

McDonald said he has spoken to Trump’s campaign about the party’s effort to stop the primary, but said the team did not express a preference for one over the other. Trump’s campaign did not respond to requests for comment.

Zachary Moyle, a GOP strategist who was the state party’s executive director from 2006 to 2009, said a primary system is better organized. He said caucuses can be confusing for voters, especially those who are not as active, and have less stringent rules against electioneering.

While running then-Ohio Gov. John Kasich’s 2016 presidential campaign in Nevada, Moyle said GOP voters told him that many of those who were working the caucuses had hats, buttons and shirts supporting Trump. He called that an example of “indirect voter intimidation” that is a byproduct of a state party rather than election officials running the nominating process.

Still, Moyle cautioned against blaming the party for intentionally tailoring the election process to favor Trump.

While caucuses may have lower turnout and benefit the former president because of his campaign’s experience in 2016, he said the state party may have other interests in mind. The party runs the caucus, puts on its own events and decides how much each candidate must pay to be on the ballot.

“It’s the ability to be able to control the process, but it’s also a money process,” he said.

As the Nevada GOP considers its next steps to block the state-run primary, McDonald has helped lead an effort to educate conservative voters about the caucus, including media appearances, text notifications and community outreach.

Elaine Kamarck, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and an expert in the presidential nominating system, said a caucus ultimately boils down to the candidates themselves and how well they are able to organize and turn out supporters.

“It sounds like it would be massively confusing to the voters, but in practice it isn’t,” she said. “It’s in the interest of every single candidate to make sure voters know how to participate.”

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Cassidy reported from Atlanta.

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Stern is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a program that places journalists in local newsrooms. Follow Stern on Twitter: @gabestern326.

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