GOP plans caucus change to help some religious groups

Nevada Republican Party leaders Wednesday night recommended having an at-large presidential caucus after sundown Saturday, Feb. 4, to allow observant Jews to participate, a GOP source said.

The proposal came in response to a Clark County GOP plan to have a separate caucus on Feb. 2, the Thursday before the statewide caucus, to accommodate Orthodox Jews and Seventh-day Adventists who observe Saturdays as a holy day of rest.

The state party wants all caucus-goers to pick their presidential preferences on the same day to ensure it’s following GOP rules and state law, the source said. So the state party executive board suggested the compromise that would have most Nevada caucus-goers meeting in their local precincts during the day on Feb. 4, followed by the at-large caucus for religious observers that night.

"The executive board is moving to have everything consistent on Feb. 4," said the GOP source, speaking on condition of anonymity about the private deliberations.

The state party has to run the proposal by attorneys and national Republican Party officials before making a final decision, the source said, and then hope for a quick resolution.

Having an at-large Feb. 4 caucus for specific religious faithful statewide probably would prompt the Clark County GOP to fall in line.

Earlier in the day, Clark County GOP Chairman David Gibbs said he proposed the special caucus for Nevadans who hold Saturday sacred after concerns were expressed by members of the Jewish community, including Las Vegas Sands Corp. chief Sheldon Adelson.

Adelson, one of the richest men in America and a powerful influence in Nevada, also is a major donor to the Republican Party and GOP candidates, including presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich.

Ron Paul’s campaign questioned the move, saying the Feb. 2 caucus shouldn’t be allowed under GOP rules that say only members of the military can vote early by absentee ballot. Mitt Romney’s campaign supported the plan but suggested the party ask participants to sign affidavits saying their religious beliefs prevent them from caucusing on Saturday, Feb. 4.

The Feb. 2 caucus shouldn’t "become an early vote location for anyone that just doesn’t want to show up on Saturday," said Ryan Erwin, an adviser to the Romney campaign in Nevada.

Gibbs assured the campaigns in a Wednesday afternoon conference call that the Clark County GOP would try to ensure only the faithful participate so no candidate can "game the system."

"We’re not in the tank for anybody," Gibbs said. "We have called it a caucus meeting, and it’s being done for one purpose only, for those people who are being excluded."

An estimated 60,000 to 70,000 members of the Jewish faith live in Southern Nevada. Republicans expect at least several hundred people might participate in any caucus for the faithful.

The county GOP’s executive board voted Tuesday night to arrange the special caucus on Feb. 2, a Thursday, Gibbs said. He said most of the 21 members of the board were present and only a couple of them didn’t raise their hands in support of the plan.

"There were multiple members of the (Jewish) community who expressed concern," Gibbs explained. "Sheldon Adelson is one of the leaders in that community who expressed some concern."

Barbara Altman, a Jewish member of the GOP executive board, brought up the matter several months ago with Gibbs after discussing it with Adelson.

"We have to be considerate of people’s religion," Altman said. Members of the Jewish faith observe the Sabbath from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday, and Orthodox Jews must avoid many activities, including driving. Seventh-day Adventists worship on Saturdays.

Carl Bunce, chair of the Paul campaign in Nevada, said the better solution would be to let the faithful caucus after sundown on Saturday, Feb. 4, but Gibbs said that wasn’t feasible. Under that scenario, the religious caucus-goers still wouldn’t be able to meet with their precincts because the meetings in Clark County are scheduled to start at 9 a.m. and finish by 1 p.m.

"It should not be allowed to happen," Bunce said of a special Feb. 2 caucus, although he seemed assured by Gibbs that the county would limit participation and properly secure the ballots.

Details were still being worked out for a Feb. 2 caucus, which would start at 7 p.m.

Altman said Adelson offered to host the caucus at a private school he and his wife helped expand with a $25 million donation several years ago, the Adelson Educational Campus in Summerlin.

Participants would have to show personal identification, just as they would at the GOP caucuses on Feb. 4. And they may be asked to attest to their religious beliefs if the county tightens admission to ensure only members of the Jewish faith and Seventh-day Adventists attend.

The special caucus-goers would fill out a secret ballot, marking their presidential picks, but the results wouldn’t be released until all votes were counted Feb. 4 after the statewide caucuses for Republicans, Gibbs said. The Feb. 2 ballots would be sealed in a locked box.

Republicans who want to be chosen as delegates to the county party convention — and ultimately the national convention that nominates the GOP presidential candidate — couldn’t be elected during any special Feb. 2 caucus, according to Gibbs. He said delegates could nominate themselves at the meeting, but Nevada laws says delegates can only be elected by voters from their own precincts.

Gibbs said it’s possible GOP leaders could fill a delegate vacancy with someone who participated in the special Feb. 2 caucus, "but there’s no guarantee."

Contact reporter Laura Myers at lmyers@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2919. Follow @lmyerslvrj on Twitter.

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