Donald Trump took a preemptive victory lap in Nevada on Saturday, 12 days before he is expected to sweep the state’s delegates in Nevada’s Feb. 8 Republican presidential caucuses.
After his victories in Iowa and New Hampshire, the former president held a “Commit to Caucus” rally in Las Vegas Saturday afternoon. The former president is still battling Nikki Haley for the Republican nomination as they compete in the Feb. 24 primary in her home state of South Carolina.
But in a situation that has proved confusing for many Nevada voters, Trump and Haley’s names are not appearing on the same ballot in two separate Nevada contests, which will take place more than two weeks before the South Carolina primary.
Trump is now the only major candidate competing in the Nevada caucuses, the contest run by the state Republican Party that will award the state’s 26 delegates.
“With the help of everyone here today, we’re going to secure a gigantic win in the Nevada caucuses,” Trump said Saturday. “We’re not going to have a lot of competition, I think, but it doesn’t matter. We want to get a great, beautiful mandate.”
Haley — who was facing a potentially embarrassing loss to Trump in a caucus that is likely to be dominated by GOP base voters loyal to the former president — opted not to compete in that contest. Instead, she placed her name on the ballot in the state-run primary that will take place two days earlier on Feb. 6, a contest that Nevada Republican leaders have described as a waste of taxpayer dollars. Haley’s vote tally will be largely symbolic because no Republican delegates will be awarded through the primary process.
Haley, a former U.N. ambassador and South Carolina governor, is the only remaining major GOP presidential contender on the primary ballot, which all Nevada voters are receiving in the mail. Former vice president Mike Pence and Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) had also planned to compete in the primary, but both have since suspended their campaigns. Primary voters also have an option to choose “none of these candidates” when they fill out their ballot.
Trump told his audience on Saturday that the primary was irrelevant: “Don’t waste your time on primary, waste all of your time on caucus,” he said. “Because the primary doesn’t mean anything.”
Under rules that were designed by Trump allies who control Nevada’s Republican Party, presidential candidates were barred from competing in both the state-run primary and the party-run GOP caucuses — and had to choose one or the other.
“Talk to the people in Nevada, they will tell you the caucuses have been sealed up, bought and paid for a long time. So that’s why we got into the primary,” Haley said when asked by reporters last week why she wasn’t participating in the Nevada caucuses. “That’s the Trump train rolling through that. But we’re going to focus on the states that are fair.”
Introducing the former president at the rally on Saturday, Michael McDonald, the Nevada Republican Party chair, said he had recently talked to Trump: “I guarantee you Nevada will show up and we will deliver you 100 percent of delegates for the state in Nevada to Donald Trump.”
Jim DeGraffenreid, a Republican National Committee member in Nevada, defended the party’s rules and its effort to opt out of the state-run primary. He said the candidates were “very clear with us that they didn’t have a lot of interest in competing in two separate contests in the same state,” adding that it “made sense all around to say candidates would need to compete in one or the other — and we would award delegates only out of one of them.”
DeGraffenreid said that Republican Party officials did not agree with the rules governing the primary process that were crafted by Democratic lawmakers: “We don’t agree with sending out universal mail-in ballots that maybe go to voters who are no longer here,” he said. “ … We obviously will play by those rules in a state election where we’re required to do it. But in the party nominating process, we didn’t feel like it made any sense for us to loosen the security of that election.”
Still, DeGraffenreid acknowledged that the existence of two contests has created significant confusion. He said the party received more than 900 voice mails on Thursday night alone — with many voters expressing confusion about why Trump is not on their primary ballot.
Last year, the Trump campaign engaged in an intensive state-by-state effort to influence state party leaders and shape party rules to improve his chances of amassing as many delegates as possible and wrapping up the nomination fight early. State party rules and leaders determine the processes that lead to the selection of presidential nominating delegates.
During that state-by-state courtship, Nevada Republican Party leaders were invited to Trump’s Mar-a-Lago Club where they discussed the 2024 caucuses process and the politics of the state, according to two people who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a private meeting.
Late last year, a Nevada grand jury charged six Republicans who claimed to be presidential electors in 2020 and submitted certificates to Congress falsely asserting that Trump had won the election in their state. The group included McDonald and DeGraffenreid.
Nevada’s unusual situation this year — with both a primary and caucuses a few days apart — stemmed from Republicans’ objections to a 2021 law championed by the state’s Democrats and passed by the legislature mandating that major political parties with more than one candidate hold a primary on the first Tuesday in February.
Republican leaders in the state, some of whom had echoed Trump’s falsehoods about the 2020 election results, objected to holding a primary at taxpayer expense and to the fact that every voter would receive a ballot in the mail, among other issues. The Republican Party of Nevada sued the state, seeking an order that would allow the party to opt out of the state primary and keep their caucuses.
In the lawsuit, filed by Republican National Committee member and attorney Sigal Chattah, the Nevada GOP argued that the 2021 law mandating the state-run primary violated the First Amendment guarantee of freedom of association. Political parties, the lawsuit said, “are self-governed and not subject to state interference/influence as to how its presidential candidates are chosen.”
The party ultimately dropped its lawsuit after the judge sided with the attorney general’s office allowing the primary to proceed. But the judge affirmed the Nevada GOP’s right to hold caucuses and to award delegates as they pleased through that contest.
The GOP caucuses are conducted in person. In the primary, every registered voter in Nevada will receive a ballot in the mail and may also cast their ballot at early voting locations between Saturday and Friday, or on Feb. 6 at their polling location.
President Biden appears on the Democratic primary ballot along with author Marianne Williamson. Rep. Dean Phillips (D-Minn.), who has challenged Biden in some states, is not participating in Nevada.
Amy Gardner and Dylan Wells contributed to this report.