DENVER — Nevada is keeping its caucuses for selecting presidential nominees, disappointing supporters of several Republican presidential contenders who had hoped to shift the early-voting state to a system of primaries.
Caucuses are considered favorable to candidates who have a network of highly motivated activists, and in Nevada they are seen as especially favoring Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul because of his family’s support in the state Republican party.
Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval backed legislation to change to a primary, but the bill never came up for a vote before the Legislature adjourned Monday night. It was the subject of frantic horse-trading and lobbying in the state capitol in Carson City until the final minutes of the session.
“I would’ve liked to have seen that get through, but it didn’t,” he told The Associated Press. “I think that would’ve attracted candidates to our state. I don’t know if it will be the same if it is a caucus.”
The state’s Republican Lt. Gov. Mark Hutchison, chairman of Florida Sen. Marco Rubio’s 2016 presidential campaign in Nevada, had pushed for the bill. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who met with Sandoval during the push to ditch the caucuses, might have also been a beneficiary of a primary system.
For 2016, Bush, Rubio and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz have all signed prominent Nevada Republican operatives in recent weeks, signaling that the state will be fiercely contested, regardless of its system for picking the winner.
“We will strongly compete in every state, including the Nevada caucuses,” Rubio spokesman Alex Conant said. Conant said Rubio’s campaign was neutral on the legislation.
Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid called one Democratic lawmaker to urge him to not back the measure. Reid felt the bill jeopardized Nevada’s early-voting status “because it created uncertainty,” said Reid spokeswoman Kristin Orthman.
Without Democratic support, the bill fell victim to divisions within the state Republican Party. Nevada’s state party apparatus was taken over by followers of former Rep. Ron Paul several years ago, and critics have contended that the caucuses — and their arcane rules over who can vote in the gatherings — favor the Paul family.
Nick Phillips, political director of the Clark County Republican Party and a supporter of a primary system, vowed to change that despite the bill’s failure. “Obviously, there’s the perception that those people can run the caucuses, but we’ll get the rules better this time,” Phillips said in an interview Tuesday.
Phillips and other backers give a similar reason for preferring a primary — higher turnout. Nevada’s caucuses drew only about 8 percent of the state’s Republican voters in 2012. “It hurts the citizens of the state of Nevada,” said state Sen. James Settelmeyer, the bill’s author. He worried the collapse of the legislation would lead both national parties to remove Nevada’s status as the first-voting presidential nominating Western state by the 2020 contest.
Assemblyman James Wheeler, R-Gardnerville, said it’s far easier for candidates to try to appeal directly to voters through a statewide primary than master the complex caucus system. “I’m a huge Scott Walker fan and I honestly believe he’s going to win no matter what,” Wheeler said of the Wisconsin governor and 2016 prospect, “but I believe a primary would be easier” for him and most other candidates.
However, the 2012 example showed that the state is no guarantee for the Paul family. Ron Paul, Rand’s father, came in third in the caucuses behind Mitt Romney, who was helped both by the strong influence of Mormon voters among Nevada Republicans and his own well-funded operation. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who had no built-in ties to Nevada, came in second.