Nevada primary moves expose intraparty strife, concerns of a Trump-friendly process
Penalties could come to presidential campaigns that participate in the primary.
Hardball politics is being played behind the scenes in Nevada, and the state Republicans' intraparty drama is creating a scenario that many are concerned confuses and disenfranchises voters and gives former President Donald Trump an advantage to secure the party nomination.
The Nevada Republican Party recently announced plans to hold its own party-run presidential caucus on top of a state-sanctioned primary election in February, and potentially penalize any presidential campaigns that participate in the primary.
The Nevada GOP's push to hold a caucus directly opposes a state law enacted in 2021 that mandates a new, presidential preference primary for either party if more than one candidate files for the ballot -- which is a departure from the state's historic use of a caucus.
While a Nevada District Court dismissed the state GOP's lawsuit seeking to discard the primary, it ruled that the party does not have to bind their delegates to the state-run process, and did not outlaw a supplemental caucus.
In mid-August, the state party leadership went a step further, announcing its plan to allocate delegates only to presidential candidates that don't participate in the state-run primary, though the details have not been formally voted on.
Sound confusing? This convoluted process could have wide-reaching impacts on how presidential nominees are selected.
Nevada's nominating maneuvers come as the delegate selection process in several states is under scrutiny-- some see changes among several allocation plans as skewing in Trump's favor and potentially setting the former president up to gather the most delegates and easily glide into becoming the party nominee.
Some critics of these moves claim that the efforts to maintain the state's caucus, were championed by Nevada GOP chair and Trump ally Michael McDonald and other high-ranking members of the party. They say the caucus--which are in-person gatherings where voters publicly disclose their preferred candidate in tidy groups--could be advantageous for Trump, who already has a deep network of vocal supporters and organizational power across Nevada.
State-run primary elections use individual, private ballots, which some believe could lend an advantage to a less outspoken or organized group of Republican voters.
'Gaming of this whole arrangement'
Pro-Ron DeSantis super PAC Never Back Down founder Ken Cuccinelli is one of those who says he is suspicious of McDonald. He said that on its face, he doesn't think that the party's use of a caucus will have "much effect" on the governor as he's confident in the DeSantis campaign's "developed grassroots efforts."
"What we're worried about is the continued gaming of this whole arrangement by McDonald and the Nevada GOP to seek advantage for Trump," said Cuccinelli, who himself has a history of allegedly helping to orchestrate Ted Cruz's 2016 effort to leverage the delegate system and who later served in the Trump administration.
In recent weeks, Never Back Down has suspended its door-knocking operations in Nevada, California, Texas and North Carolina to invest some of those field resources into other early-voting states – Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina – citing the Nevada GOP leadership's pro-Trump leaning and push for a caucus as part of the reason behind its move.
Members of the Nevada GOP leadership have rebuked allegations of collusion.
"Anybody who's ever participated in trying to select the president in this state has gone through a caucus," McDonald, the state's GOP Chairman, told ABC News, referring to the history of Nevada using caucuses almost every presidential election since 1981. "So it's not something that's new to Nevada."
"This is not about his campaign at all," McDonald continued. "This is about the voters in Nevada... It's bigger than Gov. DeSantis. It's bigger than anybody that's running for office."
Nevada's Republican National Committeeman Jim DeGraffenreid echoed the sentiment, saying the "caucus actually provides the most transparent and even playing field in our opinion for all the candidates."
"Which is one of the reasons why Nevada has always used the caucus, regardless of whether Trump was a potential candidate or not," he told ABC News.
DeGraffenreid said the proposal to disqualify candidates who participate in the primary from winning delegates in the state is "an effort to avoid voter confusion," and further discourage the GOP field from participating in the primaries.
The Trump team has also pushed back on allegations that by championing the use of a caucus, Nevada GOP leadership was in any way tilting the scales toward the former president.
"We have an edge in a lot of facets and a lot of different areas," a Trump aide told ABC News. "All the moves and all the relationships we've developed in 2015 and 2016, even in the White House, holding events in Nevada and doing a lot of the organizational work, and then going into 2020 as well, developing those relationships, developing this massive organization, it just rolls into 2024 where it's even bigger."
Nevada Republicans, in a letter to presidential campaigns sent on Aug. 16, doubled down on a Federal Election Commission policy of separation between a campaign and a super PAC, saying their party can only interface or share data with official political campaigns. Their staunch compliance can be viewed as a direct swing at DeSantis' bid, however, which relies heavily on its super PAC Never Back Down to boost campaign activity.
But other Republicans across the state say they are less convinced that there was not some level of coordination between the Nevada GOP and the Trump campaign.
One member of the Nevada Republican Party's Central Committee, who spoke with ABC News under the condition of anonymity so as to speak candidly about internal party disputes, called the Nevada GOP leadership's push to disregard results of the state-run presidential primary and only count the results of the party-run caucus process "outrageous," claiming the push for caucuses will face strong opposition during a meeting with the state GOP central committee meeting next month, when Nevada Republicans will further discuss and vote on the matter. The plan to effectively penalize campaigns who also use the state primary is expected to pass in that vote, DeGraffenreid said.
Nicol Herris, president of the Republican Women of Reno and the second vice president of the Nevada Federation of Republican Women, said she believes the state GOP leadership's pro-Trump tendency is based on "natural alliances" that have been formed due to the state's overwhelming support for the former president going back to past election cycles.
Tipping the delegate scales toward Trump in California, Michigan?
Nevada's primary moves come on the heels of decisions out of states such as California and Michigan to adopt new GOP delegate selection processes that many say may be favorable for the former president.
Delegates are doled out to candidates through a variety of methods after each state votes in primaries or through caucuses. The candidate with the most delegates becomes the party nominee.
In July, California Republicans unanimously approved a delegate selection plan for 2024 that assigns convention delegates based on the statewide vote (that transitions into a winner-take-all system if one candidate gets 50% +1) instead of how it was formerly done, being divided proportionally based on wins in congressional districts. And under the proposed plan, if no one wins a majority, the delegates will be awarded proportionately based on each candidate's share of the statewide vote.
DeSantis directly addressed his suspicions with the Trump team's strategy following the California vote.
"I will say I mean, clearly, clearly there's an effort with some of the state parties, you know, to bend it in one way," DeSantis told ABC News.
California's Republican Party Chairwoman Jessica Millan Patterson, in a statement to ABC News, denounced the idea that their move was anything more than staying in compliance with Republican National Committee rules for states holding their caucuses or primaries before March 15 in order to protect their largest-in-the-nation delegate count. It was not about "empowering any one campaign over another," she said.
For "early primary" states, the party requires the proportional allocation of delegates– California would be considered an early state as their primary date has been moved up to Super Tuesday on March 5.
"The new plan helps Trump but also specifically disadvantages DeSantis," said Jon Fleischman, who was executive director of the California GOP in 2000.
"Let's say Trump is at 49%, he gets 49% of the delegates, but all of the other delegates wouldn't just go to DeSantis. They'd now be divided up amongst all the other candidates," said Fleischman.
Similarly, in Michigan, Republican Party officials voted in June to pass a "resolution of intent" that would dole a portion of delegates on their primary election night, with the remaining delegates chosen through caucuses four days later, according to a draft of the proposal reviewed by ABC News. The process could benefit Trump by limiting selection of the majority of delegates to an especially involved group of caucus-goers that is expected to be friendly toward Trump.
But Michigan Republicans will have to change the plan their state committee approved in June to adhere to RNC rules, Michigan RNC Committeeman Rob Steele confirmed to ABC News. The details of a new delegate allocation/apportionment plan are being decided, he said.
'I'm going to vote in every election that I can'
Some Nevada Republicans and voter-rights activists are concerned that the dueling primary and caucus processes could lead to confusion and disenfranchisement.
"There are people living outside the state, we have people who are disabled, we have the military ... they can't physically attend the caucuses," the Nevada GOP central committee member who spoke with ABC News anonymously said. "Not to mention most Republicans are working late at night. Those who are working an evening shift at the casinos -- they're not going to go to a caucus site to vote in person."
Emily Persuad-Zamora, executive director of voter rights group Silver State Voices, which advocated for the state legislation that established the state-run presidential preference primary, echoed those concerns, adding, "I've never seen something like that happen before."
Bruce Parks, chairman of the Washoe County Republican Committee, said allegations that caucuses limit voter access is "patently untrue" and that the caucus is no more than a return to the process that has been used in Nevada for many years.
Herris, who said she has had firsthand experience with both primaries and caucuses, stressed that the Nevada Republican Party needs to come together to iron out a clear picture of how the delegate selection process is going to look come February.
"The only thing we can do now is educate [voters]," Herris said.
"I'm going to vote in every election that I can," she said. "That is my right, and you do not know what's going to happen … I don't want my vote to not count."
ABC News' Will McDuffie contributed to this report.