An important swing state is pushing to change how its Republican presidential nominee will be selected, a move that critics say would almost guarantee a victory for former president Donald Trump. 

The Nevada Republican Party is moving to hold a “preference primary poll” during caucus meetings instead of a primary election in February 2024, a move that party leadership claims will be less expensive and more secure. But conversations with Republican strategists and campaign surrogates in Nevada reveal another possible reason: A caucus would increase the chances of a victory for Trump.

Two other western states — Utah and Idaho — will hold caucuses instead of primary elections, too. But party leadership in Utah insists they want to hold caucuses to encourage candidates to visit the state, not to give any candidate an advantage.

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The Nevada state party sued the secretary of state’s office to cancel its primary election, saying the requirement to hold a primary violates Republicans’ First Amendment rights to freedom of association. A district court dismissed the case, but the state party appealed to the Nevada Supreme Court, the Nevada Independent reported.

Nevada is considered a 2024 swing state, with some election forecasters placing it among four states that could decide the election. Its “First in the Nation” caucus traditionally makes it an important battleground for Republican candidates.

At present, the state’s primary election is scheduled for Feb. 6 and its caucus Feb. 8. A move to cancel the state’s primary would avoid the “embarrassing scenario” that one candidate wins the primary and another wins the caucus, one Nevada Republican strategist said.

The Nevada Republican Central Committee is scheduled to meet this weekend in Winnemucca — a remote, mountainous town northeast of Reno — to vote on several resolutions dealing with the caucus. The resolutions, according to former Nevada GOP executive director Chuck Muth, would require presidential candidates who wish to participate in the caucus to file with the state party and pay it a $55,000 fee. Further, any candidate who participates in the primary will be deemed ineligible to participate in the caucus — and thus forfeit a chance at winning the state.

“Indeed, it’s entirely possible that, with this rule in place, Trump will be the only candidate whose name appears on the caucus ballot,” Muth wrote.

Nevada Republicans have argued that a caucus would save taxpayer money, increase turnout and prevent fraud. A caucus, wrote Nevada Republican National Committeeman Jim DeGraffereid, “gives all the decision making power to grassroots Republicans.” 

Critics of the caucus system point to the inconvenience of voters arriving to an in-person location at 5 p.m. on a weekday, saying it will lead to decreased turnout when compared to vote-by-mail or a full day of voting. 

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GOP candidates are avoiding Nevada

Nevada, which is forecast to be one of four states that could decide the 2024 election, has received little attention from Republican hopefuls. Presidential candidates have focused their attention on the other early-voting states — Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina.

Last weekend alone, six Republican candidates visited the city of Nevada, Iowa, population 7,000; in the past year, only three have visited Nevada, the state.

Strategists point to ongoing uncertainty about Nevada’s caucus system and ballot access as the reason. “Why come and spend resources if at the end of the day, someone’s going to come in and pull the rug out from underneath you?” said Alex Jones, a Las Vegas-based strategist at Red Rock Strategies.

DeSantis suspends efforts in Nevada

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, whose campaign knocked over 150,000 doors in Nevada during the summer, suspended its door-to-door canvassing efforts in August, the Las Vegas Review-Journal reported. Days earlier, the Nevada Republican Party informed campaigns it would not be working with political action committees, an alleged shot at DeSantis, whose PAC — Never Back Down — is the backbone of his campaign operation.

“Whatever the Trump people want, the Nevada party chairman, (Mike) McDonald, is going to do,” Ken Cuccinelli, founder of Never Back Down, said in a statement provided to the Deseret News. “They’re creating an unusual and very subjective way that they can control who gets into the caucus to vote, who the delegates are that come out, and stifle the First Amendment ability to participate in the caucus on the day of.”

McDonald told the Review-Journal that the decision had nothing to do with any specific candidate, but instead was geared toward guaranteeing a transparent election.

McDonald has long been an ally of Trump. He supported Trump’s 2016 candidacy and backed false claims that Trump won the 2020 election. The Nevada GOP’s executive director, Alida Benson, left her post in July to become the Trump campaign’s Nevada state director.

Nevada canceled its 2020 GOP caucus and primary, ensuring that Trump would go unopposed in the state.

“Dollar for dollar, your ability to reach out to new voters is so much better in Nevada than in Iowa or New Hampshire,” one Republican strategist, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, told the Deseret News. “But they’re rigging the system for Trump, so it’s stupid for any (other candidates) to be here.”

“Trump is against rigged elections when they hurt him, he doesn’t appear to be against rigging elections when it benefits him, and Nevada is a prime example,” Cuccinelli said.

Utah, Idaho also will hold caucuses

The Utah Republican Party notified the lieutenant governor’s office last month that it would not host a primary election in 2024 to select a presidential nominee, but would instead hold a “presidential preference poll” during caucus meetings. In Idaho, the state legislature passed a bill during its spring legislative session that axed primary elections, amid confusion among lawmakers.

While Nevada state law now mandates a primary election, Utah is a caucus state — local officials, like state and county delegates, are elected in caucus. State law allows the parties to decide whether to host a primary election or a caucus to vote for presidential candidates.

Utah Republican Party Chair Rob Axson insists the party’s decision was not made to benefit any specific candidate, noting he’s received criticism from “a number of Trump supporters” who assumed it was an effort to undermine Trump. “In reality this process will be fair for all candidates and is best for Utahns as we foster an effective and widely attended caucus,” Axson said. “We will not stack the deck for or against any candidate and look forward to Utah Republicans making the decision.”

Early projections show Utah as the most competitive red state, as Trump maintains an 8-percentage-point lead over DeSantis in the latest Deseret News/Hinckley Institute of Politics poll. Nationally, Trump leads DeSantis — currently his closest challenger — by over 40 percentage points.

Though the caucus system is less convenient for voters than submitting ballots by mail, Axson believes the format encourages discourse, involvement and informed voting.

“I want citizens to ask themselves: why are you so afraid of spending an hour-and-a-half, once every two years, with your neighbors to talk about some of the most important questions, as it pertains to our civic duty and our system of government and decisions that will be made over the next couple of years?” Axson said.

Axson has also argued that holding a caucus will encourage candidates to campaign in Utah, rather than simply sending mailers or airing ads. When Utah has held a caucus to vote for presidential candidates, like in 2016, “there is more incentive and reason for presidential candidates to engage with Utah.”

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So far only two declared presidential candidates — DeSantis and former vice president Mike Pence — have visited Utah this election cycle. 

A person close to the Utah Republican Party confirmed that party leadership discussed the decision to hold a caucus with several of the Republican presidential campaigns, and each were supportive.

Only a handful of states continue to use closed caucuses instead of primary elections. In a closed caucus, voters must arrive at planned precinct meetings, often on a weekday afternoon, at a school or other rented place, and vote in-person. Only registered members of the respective party can attend — though in Utah, voters can register as Republicans on the day of the caucus, Axson said.

Primary elections, while still closed only to members of the respective political parties in Idaho, Utah and Nevada, allow voters to send ballots by mail or arrive at voting locations during longer hours on election day.

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