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DeSantis aside, few presidential hopefuls heading to early state Nevada

Gabby Birenbaum
Gabby Birenbaum
Election 2024Elections
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks during the 8th annual Basque Fry at Corley Ranch in Gardnerville on June 17, 2023. (Trevor Bexon/The Nevada Independent).

When Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis took the Basque Fry stage in Gardnerville on Saturday, he became the first officially declared 2024 presidential candidate to hold a public event in the Silver State.

Relative to the rest of the GOP field, DeSantis made an early splash. But relative to prior Republican contests, Nevada has been little more than an afterthought to the growing presidential primary field, even though there are fewer than eight months remaining until the state’s Feb. 6 primary.

Candidates have instead lavished attention on South Carolina, New Hampshire, and particularly first-to-go Iowa, where everyone from the former president to the little-known governor of North Dakota has held events, paid for ad blitzes and jockeyed for attention in Des Moines and Cedar Rapids. 

That’s not the case so far in Las Vegas, Carson City or Reno, which by this point in 2015 hosted nearly 20 events between the three cities with eight different Republican presidential hopefuls.

Strategists interviewed by The Nevada Independent agreed that the 2016 nominating race was considered far more open than 2024’s contest, when Trump was a dark horse in a crowded field rather than a former president with double-digit polling leads and a strong political base to boot.

Even without those institutional advantages, Trump handily won the state’s 2016 presidential caucus, receiving almost double the votes of second-place finisher, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL). State party leaders canceled the 2020 caucus and awarded the state’s delegates to Trump.

“President Trump's folks are basically doing the drumbeat of — we've got it wrapped up,” said Rep. Mark Amodei (R-NV), the state’s lone Republican in Congress. “Obviously, the other folks have something to say about that….I just think it's a much more cautious atmosphere at the moment.”

An analysis from ad tracking firm AdImpact found that only $557,000 out of $40.3 million spent on GOP primary ads (just over 1 percent) have targeted Nevada thus far in 2023, per an NBC News report. The low spending figures may be a function of a top-heavy race, in which Trump and DeSantis have super PACs with tens of millions in their coffers, and Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC) has over $20 million in his Senate account, while the other candidates, particularly those newer to the race, are lower on funds.

Recent polls in Nevada show Trump with commanding 30-point leads over DeSantis.

Strategists said Trump’s devoted base and state party support means DeSantis, even with a well-timed visit, is already playing catch-up. Trump’s past success in Nevada and advantages in the state might even be what’s keeping other candidates from making early investments. The lack of attention could be creating a self-fulfilling prophecy, where candidates’ concerns that Trump already has the state in the bag is enabling the conditions for exactly that to occur.

However, that lack of attention, strategists said, could give a lower-polling candidate a golden opportunity.

Zachary “Oso” Guymon, a partner at Reformation Strategies, a Republican political consultant firm not working for any 2024 candidates and who worked on Sen. Rand Paul’s (R-KY) 2016 campaign, said candidates (particularly those with lower name recognition) should begin investing in Nevada. Given that Nevada’s media market is undersaturated especially compared to Iowa, the value of an ad dollar in Las Vegas could be far more potent than it is in Des Moines.

“If I was advising Tim Scott or [Nikki] Haley or any of them, I’d say, ‘Look, you can play around in Iowa — but Nevada, it’s pretty open right now,’” Guymon said.

Nevada’s disadvantages

The lack of attention is not just perception. Guymon said his firm has begun to receive preliminary calls from campaigns, but said none of the 10-plus declared candidates has yet put significant resources in place. 

Amy Tarkanian, a former state Republican Party chair, said she has yet to hear of any candidates besides Trump and DeSantis setting up a ground game. 

DeSantis, with the support of a super PAC and a well-known state surrogate in former Nevada Attorney General Adam Laxalt, who was the Florida governor’s roommate at Naval Justice School, is the notable exception as someone who has begun to invest resources into the state.

Another sign of Nevada’s inconsequentiality at this point is a lack of major endorsements, outside of Laxalt. As two of the most prominent elected Republicans, Gov. Joe Lombardo and Amodei should be coveted supporters. But Amodei said the only candidate that has reached out to him is DeSantis. The two spoke on the phone recently. 

“They haven't been concentrating on Nevada as much,” Amodei said. “I assume that that must be a function of Republicans that are doing the metrics for these folks, in terms of the road to the nomination, haven't got Nevada figured as one of those crossroads at this point as opposed to the last times.”

Further complicating calculations is the unknown status of what kind of contest Republicans in the state will hold. State law establishes a primary on Feb. 6, but the state GOP is suing to hold a caucus instead — an opt-out that is permissible, though it would come at greater financial cost to the party.

Nevada also has structural disadvantages compared to the other early states. 

As a Western state, travel is more difficult and expensive for the many East Coast-based candidates. Whereas Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) had lived in Las Vegas as a child and made Nevada a major part of his 2016 campaign, and Sen. Mitt Romney (R-UT) heavily courted Nevada’s Mormon population in 2012, none of the campaigns (save for Trump’s Las Vegas hotel) have much of a connection to Nevada. 

One strategist even suggested that the death of casino magnate and megadonor Sheldon Adelson, and his widow Miriam’s pledge to stay neutral in the primary, could mean less of an incentive for candidates to stop in Nevada, and instead center their West Coast swings in financially greener pastures in California. (One potential draw is the Republican Jewish Coalition, which has an annual summit in October that typically attracts presidential hopefuls.)

And given Nevada falls after Iowa and New Hampshire on the Republican presidential calendar, smaller campaigns may go all in on those states, figuring their hopes may be dashed by the time Nevada holds its contest unless they can get a strong foothold in the earlier states.

Strategists emphasized that the latter scenario is a reasonable concern — very few campaigns have been able to survive losing the first three states and banking on a later state to come to the rescue, though Joe Biden notably bucked the trend.

“If you don't make it past Iowa and South Carolina, and you're running on fumes, then you're in a world of hurt,” said Tarkanian, a former state GOP chair.

But strategists also agreed such an approach could be short-sighted, because the Nevada electorate is receptive to retail politics. Even if a dark horse candidate were to do well in Iowa and New Hampshire, there’s no guarantee Nevada Republicans would simply hop on the bandwagon.

“Nevada doesn’t just fall into place,” said Peter Koltak, a senior adviser on Sen. Bernie Sanders’ (I-VT) successful 2020 operation in Nevada.

Nevada long figured into Sanders’ calculations as early as 2015, when he visited Las Vegas as part of his long-shot bid to unseat presumptive nominee Hillary Clinton. The campaign made a conscious decision to invest early in 2020 in the Silver State, which has a  Democratic electorate mirroring the populations the Sanders campaign believed — correctly — it could win.

Koltak said the Sanders campaign began building out its Nevada ground game as early as April 2019. 

“Those early touches can be important to getting people's minds opened up to the prospect of coming out to support you,” Koltak said. “You can't put together a winning operation late in a state like Nevada.”

The Trump advantage

Strategists agreed that the longer candidates go without investing in Nevada, the greater the advantage for Donald Trump. Trump has campaigned in the state twice, has a strong grassroots following, can more easily tap into his prior infrastructure from his past runs and has the backing of the state party apparatus, stacked with close allies such as chair Michael McDonald — someone heavily involved in state efforts to overturn the 2020 election.

Tarkanian said given how deeply the state party — with its resources to do door-knocking, phone banking, and volunteering for candidates — is in the tank for Trump, she’s not surprised that other candidates may have written Nevada off. 

“If you're somebody who's not named Trump, are you going to be able to get the support that you need?” Tarkanian said. “Are they going to remain neutral? Or are they going to cause shenanigans behind the scenes? You don't know.”

Clark County GOP Chair Jesse Law said in February that Trump has a “built-in base” in Nevada that he expects the former president to easily mobilize.

Guymon said developing a state office and building a ground game takes time and effort, but that every candidate should have already made a quick fly-in visit to the state — something only DeSantis has done. That matters, he said, even if it doesn’t yield a boost in the polls.

“It’s retail politics,” he said. “Anytime you can get in front of people, be early and be seen, it’s definitely a benefit.”

To truly crack Trump’s base in Nevada, more candidates beyond DeSantis will need to take the state seriously — and soon.

“If nobody's really spending money on building a foundation in Nevada then I think that would favor Donald Trump,” Amodei said.


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