Primary Concerns

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By Jim Hartman

The Legislature adjourned on the evening of June 1 after failing to act on a GOP-backed presidential primary bill (SB 421), thereby exasperating Republicans from Winnemucca to Washington, D.C. The worthy measure had the support of Republican National Chair Reince Priebus, Governor Brian Sandoval, and several 2016 presidential hopefuls. Its failure may presage an end to Nevada’s “first four” status in the presidential selection process in 2020.

The outcome was the result of Assembly Republicans’ failure to unite amid a bevy of vote-flipping shifts in the hours approaching adjournment. Lack of support from some of the most conservative members of the caucus was compounded by the unavoidable absence of two members, Vicki Dooling and John Moore. In the end, it was reliably reported that the bill would have been one vote short of passage had it come up for a vote.

Senator Harry Reid, acting once again as “Meddler-in-Chief,” was credited by some for killing the bill. Reid made a late-session call to veteran Democratic Assemblyman Harvey Munford and got him to switch his support to opposition. Throughout the session, Democrats made the defeat of the bill a priority. The pretext was the supposed cost of a primary election, but the actual cost was never sufficiently estimated never mind established – and any cost would have been mitigated by the economic boon to Nevada from increased political advertising and more numerous campaign visits by a large GOP field.

A second pretext for Democrats’ opposition was the claim that a primary would imperil Nevada’s status as an early caucus state in the “first four” presidential process. The original version of SB 421, sponsored by Senator James Settelmeyer, passed the Senate in a highly controversial form that would have moved all of the state’s primary elections to February. The bill was amended late in the session by Assemblyman Lynn Stewart to provide only a presidential primary in February and to add an “opt-out” provision giving the two national parties the option to keep the caucus system if they wished. After that, it became obvious that the real reason for Democratic opposition was blatantly political. Democrats knew that maintaining the current system assured yet another chaotic GOP caucus run by a dysfunctional Nevada Republican Party (NRP) with no financial resources. The status quo had resulted in caucus debacles in both 2008 and 2012; the Democrats wanted a trifecta.

But it is a few obtuse members of the Republican Assembly caucus and not the Democrats who ultimately killed the bill. After sine die, a participant in the process observed that the bill failed because “a few people were selfish, short-sighted…or stupid”. Apparently lost on some GOP members was a matter clearly in their own self-interest:  a large GOP presidential primary field that would energize Republicans, boost GOP registration, and infuse the (NRP) with new volunteers and donors.

The most immediate losers are all of Nevada’s registered Republican voters, denied what could have been their right to vote in a primary to choose the Republican presidential nominee in 2016. Instead, Republicans must again rely on the NRP to organize and properly manage a caucus vote. Making it accessible and fair to all Republicans and then providing for a rule-abiding, credible delegate selection process is something that eluded the NRP in both in 2008 and 2012. Nevada Republicans should brace themselves for a likely threepeat.

For those who doubt that or who have forgotten the facts, let us recall the numbers. In 2008 the NRP-conducted caucus had 44,000 participants or 10 percent of GOP registered voters. Mitt Romney won 51 percent of the vote, crushing Ron Paul who had just 13 percent or 6,089 votes. In spite of the caucus vote results, ardent Paul supporters swarmed the state convention and hijacked the proceedings in order to elect their own delegates. The 2008 caucus vote amounted to nothing.

In 2012, caucus participation dropped to 33,000 or just 7 percent of GOP registered voters. Romney won again with 50 percent of the vote while Ron Paul ran a distant third at 18 percent or 6,175 votes. Again, Paul supporters gamed the system and Romney was awarded only 5 of 28 national convention delegates. Paul lost badly in both years, but his ardent band of 6,000 or so caucus voters cleverly controlled the delegate selection process. It amounted to 1.2 percent of Nevada Republicans making nominating decisions for all the rest.

For 2016, there is little evidence that the (NRP) has the financial resources or competence to run a statewide presidential caucus. The party’s May report to the Nevada Secretary of State listed 2015 year-to-date contributions of $7,721 with expenses of $71,523 — and no large donors. The state party is broke, and it is unlikely that Paul supporters – now for Rand, not Ron – have lost their fire or their willingness to play dirty in order to “win.”

The proposed presidential primary would have opened Nevada’s 1,800 precincts for voting over a 12-hour period on the last Tuesday in February 2016 and would have provided for absentee voting. By comparison, 2012 (NRP) caucus voting was limited to only 125 voting sites in the entire state which opened for only four hours on a Saturday morning with no absentee voting. Even assuming a low 35-40 percent turnout among Republicans, a presidential primary would have resulted in at least five times as many Republicans voting than participated in the 2012 caucus vote.

Thanks to a few Assembly Republicans who couldn’t see the forest from the trees, Nevada’s 434,000 registered Republicans are essentially disenfranchised from choosing their preferred presidential nominee. They will be twice disenfranchised if the NRP repeats the undemocratic caucus fiascos they perpetrated in both 2008 and 2012. Should that occur, Nevada will likely lose its “first four” status in the 2020 nomination process, a prospect sure to cause regret among those who didn’t see fit to fix what was ailing us while they still could.

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