Nevada GOP conservatives help keep presidential caucus alive

CARSON CITY — A Republican-backed bill that would have allowed political parties to scrap Nevada’s presidential caucus system in favor of a secret-ballot primary was defeated in an Assembly committee Wednesday when some conservative Republicans joined with Democrats to oppose it.

An amendment to Senate Bill 421 sought to give political parties the option to hold a presidential preference primary election on the last Tuesday in February, while leaving the primary for state and local political contests in June.

Unless the bill is revived in the final days of the Legislature, the defeat means Republicans and Democrats will continue to hold caucuses to choose a preferred presidential candidate.

Backers of the bill late Wednesday said the Senate bill could be reconsidered or inserted as an amendment into another bill. Meanwhile, a similar measure, Assembly Bill 302, would allow the same changes to the presidential preference procedure. It was passed in April by the Assembly Committee on Legislative Operations and Elections, the same panel that nixed the Senate bill Wednesday. The Assembly bill is sitting in the Ways and Means Committee and could also be revived.

But time is running short. There are only five days left in the legislative session.

State Sen. James Settelmeyer, R-Minden, was the primary sponsor of SB421.

“It’s a terrible thing,” he said of the bill’s setback. He said Nevada voters should be allowed to weigh in on the next leader of the free world through a primary election.

Republican supporters argued that changing how Nevada voters choose their favorite presidential contender would protect the Silver State’s early influence in the presidential selection process and encourage more voter participation.

It would also dilute the influence of grass-roots party activists who are more motivated to turn out for precinct caucuses and in recent years have taken control of the state Republican Party, much to the chagrin of more moderate Republicans such as Gov. Brian Sandoval.

This election cycle, several Republican presidential candidates are threatening to snub Nevada’s first-in-the-West caucus because the state GOP is run by Rand Paul loyalists, giving the U.S. senator from Kentucky a perceived advantage. Should other Republican hopefuls skip Nevada, the state would lose its relevance in shaping the national presidential debate.

Settelmeyer said that would hurt Nevada as a whole, which benefits from having presidential contenders visiting the state and putting national attention on western issues.

The original Senate bill would have moved all primaries — from president to county government seats — to February. Democrats and other critics complained that would upset the state election system and have candidates campaigning for votes and money during November and December, when voters are focused on the holidays and spending time with family.

Under a proposed amendment, Nevada would hold a one-day presidential primary with no early voting, though there would be absentee and overseas military ballots. Polls would be open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., and voters could cast ballots at any polling location in their county.

The cost, estimated at $335,000 in Clark County and $500,000 statewide for a one-party primary, would be borne by the state.

The bill also would allow the Democratic Party to opt out of a primary with advance notice from the national party chairman. Democrats are expected to retain a presidential caucus.

Contact Sandra Chereb at schereb@reviewjournal.com or 775-687-3901. Find her on Twitter: @SandraChereb

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