Election 2024

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One year out, Republicans preview how Nevadans will land on presidential nomination

Gabby Birenbaum
Gabby Birenbaum
Trump rally in Nevada

Despite his 2020 loss, ongoing legal woes and the stain of the Jan. 6 uprising, former President Donald Trump holds a strong structural advantage a year before Nevada Republicans vote for their party’s next presidential nominee.

As Nevada has moved up in the Republican nominating calendar – now scheduled to vote third concurrently with South Carolina on Feb. 24, 2024 – voters will have an outsized influence in picking a candidate. And Trump remains the candidate with the highest name recognition, a massive war chest, and the political infrastructure of having run two campaigns in Nevada. 

“Trump has a built-in advantage having run here before and has a lot of deep ties to the state,” Republican strategist Jeremy Hughes said. 

Though the field is not expected to be as large as 2016, when 17 major candidates ran, Trump and former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley have already declared their candidacies.And a number of prominent Republicans, ranging from moderate governors to former Trump administration officials to right-wing firebrands, are expected to announce in coming months. 

Though candidates have yet to make an official campaign visit to the Silver State, Republican candidates, strategists, and party chairs in Nevada agreed that where Trump goes, the state’s GOP voters will be expected to follow. 

Jesse Law, the Clark County Republican Party chair, said the voters he has talked to are “still attached” to the former president. He’s a known quantity in Nevada, where he won the primary in 2016, and he brings an air of credibility, given his concrete policy achievements and authenticity that Nevadans appreciate, Law said.

“The other [candidates] are not going to be able to hold a candle to what Trump is,” Law said.

But if there is a candidate who can dethrone the former president, Nevada Republicans agreed that it would likely be Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.

DeSantis has spent his governorship building a brand as a right-wing culture war champion, using his power to crusade against mask and vaccine mandates, migrants, the teaching of racial history in schools and LGBTQ+ rights and representation. 

He has cultivated a strongman image that led to his landslide reelection as governor, though he has yet to be tested elsewhere. While still undeclared, he has marshaled nearly $80 million in campaign funding as he soft launches a campaign, courting police unions and the GOP’s donor class.

In the past, Trump counted on the support of Las Vegas’ Miram Adelson, who gave the then-president $91 million for his re-election campaign. But for the next presidential cycle, Sheldon Adelson’s widow has pledged to stay neutral. Several megadonors have moved on from Trump, eyeing other candidates such as DeSantis and increasingly warning one another of the risks of backing a candidate who already has lost a matchup with presumed Democratic nominee President Joe Biden.

In Nevada, DeSantis could have an ally in former Attorney General Adam Laxalt, his roommate at Naval Justice School and longtime friend. He received campaign contributions of over $1,000 from 24 Nevada-based individuals or groups in 2022, including a whopping $10 million from Robert Bigelow, a recent entrant into the GOP megadonor scene. 

Other large contributors include $250,000 from Las Vegas-based investment management firm Cannae Holdings, $100,000 from Las Vegas freight shipping executive Gregory Burns, and $50,000 from billionaire Bill Foley, the owner of the Vegas Golden Knights.

DeSantis’ political emergence is borne out of the politics Trump popularized from 2016 onward, drawing from the same playbook of villainizing “wokeism” and the liberal elite, attacking scientific consensus, and battling large corporations over perceived bias against conservatives. In DeSantis’ case, he revoked several of Disney’s state-level privileges over the company’s so-called “woke” values. 

With their policy similarities, DeSantis could be an attractive choice given that he lacks some of Trump’s baggage.

Still, several Nevada Republicans said the race is Trump’s to lose. DeSantis may have recognizability, Law said, but he lacks a “built-in base.”

“The people that support Trump will support him regardless of rhetoric,” said Sigal Chattah, the Nevada GOP’s 2022 nominee for attorney general who was recently elected national committeewoman. “Trump has a precedent on a national scale; DeSantis has precedent in Florida.”

Besides Haley, other potential candidates include former Vice President Mike Pence, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC), Gov. Chris Sununu (R-NH), and former Gov. Larry Hogan (R-MD). But Chattah and Law said that the rest of the field lacks name recognition in Nevada (Pompeo and Scott), are too moderate for the base (Sununu, Hogan), or lack a positive reason to run besides simply not being Trump (Pence, Haley).

Hughes, however, cautioned that a Trump primary victory is no sure thing – Mitt Romney, Trump’s ideological opposite within the party, won Nevada in 2008 and 2012, he said. 

“Nevada shows that it's willing to consider different candidates across the ideological spectrum,” he said. “You never know who's going to catch fire.”

Nevada, given its distance from the East Coast, where the vast majority of candidates are based, is an expensive state for candidates to invest in, Hughes said. Scott, with over $20 million saved from his 2022 Senate campaign, could potentially afford to build out operations in the state. 

But without the strong funding that he, Trump, and DeSantis enjoy, other candidates may be unable to get their campaigns off the ground in Nevada. The winning candidate, Hughes said, will likely be the one who makes the larger investment in the state.

Ultimately, Nevada Republicans agreed the top priority for voters will be identifying a candidate who can win the state in a general election – something no Republican has achieved since George W. Bush in 2004.

Though Trump was unable to win the state in 2016 or 2020, that might not be a liability for him. Hughes noted Trump received 47.67 percent of the vote in 2020 — a higher mark than any statewide candidate in the 2010s, including his 2016 mark, and Senate campaigns by Sharron Angle and Dean Heller.  

For Trump to capture Nevada in the general election, Law said there needs to be some level of humility from campaign staff and consultants about their 2020 strategy and a thoughtful commitment to study what went wrong and improve upon it. He hopes that includes calling out failures that have occurred on the Biden administration’s watch, such as the toxic train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio.

Law said though Republican voters may be questioning the party’s fortunes, they are anxious about nominating a candidate who can win. With Trump yet to begin his campaign in earnest or visit Nevada, those questions may be mounting.

“But they're asking themselves this question in a vacuum,” Law said. “Because, as soon as President Trump enters that conversation proactively, it will be a reminder of everything they had.”


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