How Nevada lost a presidential primary and, perhaps, its White House race clout

On the day before the 2015 Legislature adjourned, two Republican Assembly members left the building and did not return.

Assemblywoman Vicki Dooling departed because her husband of 50 years died early Sunday, and Assemblyman John Moore checked into the hospital later that day with chest pains.

It wasn’t clear until late Monday, but those real-life intrusions into the Carson City bubble doomed a bill that national Republican leaders and 2016 White House hopefuls were watching very closely, one that could have changed next year’s electoral dynamic and without which Nevada could become less important now and in the future.

With the coup de grace administered by Meddler-in-Chief Harry Reid, who helped ensure a wavering Democrat would not allow the Republicans to circumvent their disaster of a state party, a bill to transform Nevada’s presidential caucus into a primary was entombed. That death blow, Reid’s phone call to term-limited Harvey Munford, came because of the herculean efforts of proponents, including a Jeb Bush consultant who trekked to the capital. And it came after a sustained, albeit mostly sub rosa session-long campaign by Team Reid, which showed its legendary focus and determination to scuttle the primary plan.

Without Dooling and Moore, and with other obstreperous GOP caucus members even more motivated to defy their leaders after they supported Gov. Brian Sandoval’s tax increase, primary advocates could not muster the necessary 22 votes. How close was it?

One vote.

Sources consistently told me that the erratic – I’m in a generous mood – Assembly Republican Caucus was moving constantly on the issue. But by the endgame, the leaders were confident they had 21 of 25 Republicans – in addition to losing Dooling and Moore, reliable contrarians Shelley Shelton and Jill Dickman were also going to vote against the measure. Complicating matters, perhaps, Ira Hansen and Erv Nelson were threatening to use their last bit of leverage to try to force a Senate vote on a parental notification bill.

So Assembly Republican leaders needed Munford, a Democrat often ignored by his own party and best known for occasionally dozing off in committees. Munford had flirted with switching to the GOP for months because of what he claimed was disrespect, adding to the irony. Munford actually had signaled support for the primary bill in committee, but he changed his mind, thanks to Prince Harry & Co.

How it all happened is a story of a dysfunctional Assembly GOP caucus and strategic miscalculations by the Republicans as well as a commitment by the Democrats, fueled by Team Reid, to make the primary issue into a caucus celebre that one lawmaker told me early on would be used “to burn the house down,” if necessary.

No pyrotechnics necessary, though, just GOP self-immolation. And, of course, princely persuasion. The Meddler giveth (in 2008) and The Meddler taketh away (2015).


The seeds for the GOP primary bill were sown two years ago when the state party displayed its utter ineptitude during the caucus. The GOP, under the “leadership” of Michael McDonald, has only become more cartoonish since, with Gondolier Numero Uno Sheldon Adelson withdrawing his checkbook and McDonald creating an endorsement process last cycle that almost snubbed Gov. Brian Sandoval and did reject many quality candidates.

With the Clark County party calling for Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus’ resignation and the Nevada GOP circumvented by every major campaign in 2012, state and national leaders knew they had to fix the caucus to avoid another national embarrassment and the potential loss of Nevada’s early-state status.

Ironically, the Democrats immediately began to mobilize before the session, using the argument that Reid’s securing of the early state status in 2008 was contingent on it being a caucus. They insisted the Democratic National Committee would revoke that status, but they also knew that a caucus would increase the odds for a GOP debacle here and allow Democrats to organize as they did in 2008, registering 30,000 voters on one day.

This was raw, partisan politics from both sides. And after the election gave complete Carson City control to the GOP, the odds were with the Republicans.

Two plans began to work their way through the Legislature. One would place the presidential primary in February and move all the state primaries up from June; the other would only enact the former.

Moving the state elections forward, enthusiastically embraced by Senate Majority Leader Michael Roberson, would protect incumbents by shortening campaigns, potentially increase turnout and diminish the influence in primaries of the extremes. All of those arguments, some Republicans thought, would bring Democrats on board, too.

And if the decision would have been based on their own careers, many Democrats might have signed on. But Team Reid, which had operatives in the building and in frequent contact with Democratic leaders, made it clear that this issue was (almost?) as important as voter ID or decreasing early voting hours. It was not just a hill to die for; it was a hill to hold up taxes, if necessary. (I don’t believe, if it had come to that, that Democrats could have withheld their votes on a tax/education plan for something most normal Nevadans don’t care about. But the urgency was there.)

Republicans still had everything their favor: The arguments, that a 7 percent GOP turnout in the 2012 caucus was abysmal and that the push from the RNC could move people; and the legislative matrix because, unlike taxes, this required only a majority vote.

They even came up with a masterstroke both to avoid the state party and undercut the Democratic opposition, or so they thought. They inserted a provision that either party could opt out, so long as the national committee chair asked to do so. So McDonald would not have any power to stop the primary and the Democrats could easily get their caucus, if that’s what they really cared about.

On April 27, Sandoval signaled his support after I asked where he stood on the issue: “The Governor is open and willing to take a close look at changing our presidential selection process especially when it enhances our status as an early state in nominating the next President of the United States,” his spokeswoman, Mari St. Martin, told me in a read-between-the-lines endorsement.

 As the last month came around, the Democrats began to change their spin, if not their resolve. “Any confusion might jeopardize our early state status” was the labored pitch, even though there would be no confusion at all: They could opt out.

This had become about denying the Republicans a win and ensuring the McDonald clown car would still be full come February. Quietly, Republicans were confident they could get the votes, even though the ever-mercurial Michele Fiore was flipping around. They always knew Dickman could be a problem – her husband, Tom, is a Washoe party official (“I’m a caucus girl,” she told me) but they thought they could get the rest – or at least enough of the 25 to get to a majority.

They were wrong.




The main measure, SB 421, passed out of the Senate on May 12 with the opt-out provision. Plenty of time left.

On May 23,  the last week looming, the Assembly Legislative Operations panel killed Roberson’s dream of a consolidated primary and left the state elections in June. County officials had testified as to the nightmarish ramifications on them, which was an easy out for naysayers.

As the endgame approached, I checked in with the vote-counters and they mostly thought they were there to get the bill out of committee, get it to the floor and send it back to the Senate for a concurrence.

The tax increase lobbying tended to blot out everything else, but the primary vote was still the subject of much chatter. It was an ineluctable part of the end.

During the last few days, GOP insiders were fretting about where the votes were. Some samples of emails I received:


Tuesday, May 26: “Hearing that Michele may have flipped again and it might be dead. That may be all she wrote.”


Wednesday, May 27: "Probably have the votes for 421 as if right now. Will be reconsidered tomorrow. Who knows?"


Thursday, May 28: "Plan is still holding strong. But you know what we are facing here. Absolute nut jobs."


And this, that same day, from an optimist: "I think we can get to 22. If you can get Stewart, Seaman, Fiore, Moore, Shelton, and Trowbridge you pretty much have every wing....If it does (fail) now it is because of a protest/revolt/burn-the-house-down response from the crazies."

The latter observation is significant because Sandoval's tax plan was moving toward passage and Fiore & Co. were apoplectic.

As the weekend arrived, new faces appeared in the hallways, including McDonald and Ryan Erwin, who won the caucus for Mitt Romney in 2008 and 2012 and is now helming the state for Jeb Bush. Erwin had been for the primary before he signed on with Bush, but Democrats were convinced from the word go that the effort was all on the former Florida governor’s behalf. (This is false, as not just Priebus, but operatives from Scott Walker’s campaign and Marco Rubio’s also were pushing for the change.)

Also making an appearance in Carson City in the final days: Richard Bunce, who along with his brother, Carl, ran Ron Paul’s Nevada campaigns and have signed on with his son this cycle. They want a caucus because they think it better suits Rand Paul’s grass-roots appeal.

By the penultimate day, the tax plan had passed and YESes on the primary had become MAYBEs or NOs. “I still feel good,” one GOP insider told me, despite the uncertainty.

But a lot would happen on Sunday to erase that feeling.

News of Dooling’s loss and Moore’s hospitalization soon made its way to the building. Neither would return.

What’s more, news began to circulate that McDonald had visited Moore in the hospital, perhaps influencing him to vote against a primary if he returned. The story got back to DC.

McDonald had told the Washington Examiner’s David Drucker in late April that he was for a primary, but few GOP leaders trust him and the Bunces immediately took to Twitter to suggest their chairman was misquoted.

Word of McDonald's putative hospital lobbying reached DC and only deepened the distrust by the RNC. So, prodded by Priebus, McDonald put out this tweet supportive of primaries at 11:18 AM on the last day. I also had captured Lt. Gov. Mark Hutchison lobbying Munford and Elliott Anderson on the topic the previous day, and the former seemed to be buying the arguments.

But it was too little, too late.

Just in case, though, Reid placed the call to Munford, whom the Republicans were confident they had to get them to 22.  Munford told me he has known Reid for 40 years and that the senator reminded him of how he had brought the caucus here in 2008 and how the assemblyman had to do it for the president.

“He (Obama) was the first black president,” Munford told me. “And he even had a black name.”

He could not turn Reid down.

It is a measure of just how important this was to the Meddler-in-Chief that he went to the lengths he and his team did to kill this bill.  “If I had to do it over again, I would have tried harder to force the vote on Sunday,” one GOP strategist told me. “Might have caught Munford before the Reid call. But after the tax vote, few were in the mood for another heavy lift. (We) tried hard to push it with but it did not work.”

So the bill just sat up there on the Assembly screen for passage all day long. As soon as the bills above it would get voted on, leaders would push it to the bottom of the board, where it remained until sine die.

Even if Dooling and Moore had been there, the biggest impediment to getting this done even earlier in this session was a simple one, as a person who was there averred: “The real issue on the Assembly side was that it was never a priority for any of the members. Fiore liked it at first and (Jim) Wheeler picked it up toward the end. But throughout the session it was mostly outsiders and I who were trying to carry it….members just had too many other things that they cared about.”

Like their policy bills, for instance. Shocking for junkies, I know.


So what are the ramifications of the loss of the primary bill?

Some cynics believed that no matter what happened, with Reid’s departure Nevada was going to lose its early status, probably to Colorado, by 2020. Expert Josh Putnam made the case that Nevada’s anomalous inclusion in the early states was essentially an experiment nearing its endpoint.

The immediate national media narrative was that this helps Paul and hurts Bush especially, but I think it’s a little more nuanced. Bush certainly wanted a primary, which favors the moneyed candidate. But Erwin knows the caucus system and is one of the state’ best operatives. The power of the Paul people is only real inside the party apparatus. When Paul has been asked to perform in a caucus, he has fared poorly, finishing third in 2012 after much Bonce boasting and not passing the 20 percent mark in either if the last two cycles.

An operative from another presidential campaign didn’t mind the post-session stories at all: “I think Rand let the narrative get away yesterday and now NV has pretty much become a must win for them….they¹ve always over promised and under delivered so to name them (or anyone) the favorite seems premature, but the national media seemed to go with the easy story that it¹s Rand's to lose (which I'm totally fine with).”

The question looming over the caucus is whether McDonald, who may face a challenge to his chairmanship, and the state party he has bankrupted can oversee the caucus. As one wag suggested, “I think the RNC is going to have to come in and build up the caucus, otherwise it could be a disaster that makes 2012 look like a RhodesScholar convention.”

The feeling in the aftermath of the failure was neatly summed up by one GOP operative: “I hate it that we probably gave away our ability to impact the nomination process because a few people were selfish, short-sighted or stupid.  It is really sad.”

Yes, all is sad in GOPville, because, once again, the mighty Reid did not strike out.