Gardnerville, Nev. — While the attentions of the political world were focused on Donald Trump’s helicopter landing at the Iowa State Fair, Nevada caucus season kicked off at a ranch one hour south of Reno Saturday.
Four presidential candidates descended on the Corley Ranch here to speak at Nevada’s first cattle call, an event hosted by Adam Laxalt, the state’s Republican attorney general. Below bright blue skies streaked with clouds, with the stunning Sierra Nevada mountains rising in the background, Ben Carson, Carly Fiorina, Scott Walker, and Ted Cruz made their case to voters.
The Silver State will be far more competitive territory in 2016 than it has been in the past. This is just the third presidential cycle that Nevadans will vote so early in the nominating process, and last cycle Mitt Romney rode his natural advantage in the heavily Mormon state to an easy victory. But this time around, any number of candidates in the historically large field have the potential to make inroads in the state — and appear prepared to spend the money necessary to do so.
It’s been a busy week of Republicans gearing up for the first-in-the-West caucuses. Walker announced former Governor Bob List as his campaign’s Nevada chairman. Jeb Bush, meanwhile, rolled out endorsements from Nevada senator Dean Heller and Representative Mark Amodei, and held events in the state. But it was Laxalt’s event today — attended by 1,750 Republicans, according to organizers — that appeared to mark the formal start of the nominating season here.
“It really kicks Nevada caucus efforts off,” List told National Review. “And the guys who weren’t here today, the candidates who weren’t here today made a bad mistake.”
In a caucus state, organization is key, and Nevada Republicans say they’re seeing robust efforts from several candidates, including Bush, Walker, Carson, and Marco Rubio. At the event itself, Carson, Walker, and Cruz all had tables where they handed out signs, bumper stickers, and other campaign paraphernalia. Carson’s booth was consistently the most busy, with a crowd of several people lingering outside even before the event started. A lone Rubio staffer handed out stickers and caucus commitment cards. No other campaigns had any presence. (George Pataki was scheduled to speak, but pulled out at the last minute.)
Cowboy hats and boots were the norm, many emblazoned with American flags, or with the stars and stripes spelled out in rhinestones. The location was picked strategically: Nevada is a large state, but since almost all of it’s population is located in Clark County, candidates often don’t make it out to the more far-flung areas of the state. Corley Ranch, near Lake Tahoe, drew voters from all of those areas. According to event organizers, Republicans from all 17 counties bought tickets to attend the sold out event.
Any number of candidates in the historically large field have the potential to make inroads in the state — and appear prepared to spend the money necessary to do so.
For now, voters appear undecided. Many were walking plastered in stickers from several campaigns. Lori Janssen and Mike Eddy both wore Cruz stickers as they looked on excitedly at Carson wrapping up a radio appearance. Both said they had not yet picked a favorite.
“We are investigating everybody,” says Janssen, expressing particular interest in Rubio, Carson, and Fiorina.
Laxalt is Basque, and his grandfather, former Senator Paul Laxalt, a legendary political figure in Nevada, used to hold Basque Fries when he was in office. This event continued that tradition. Before the candidates spoke, dancers dressed in traditional white bonnets hopped and twirled to Basque music, and attendees were served a traditional basque meal with chorizo and lamb fries.
#related#”If you don’t know what lamb fries are, you better ask someone!” advised the event program.
Lamb fries, it turns out, are lamb testicles. Arguably, you’d be better off not knowing.
In this case, the lamb fries were cooked in a stew with vegetables, not remotely identifiable as the original organ, a boon for candidates hoping to avoid a problematic photo-op with food, and somewhat disappointing for reporters. (This reporter chickened out at the last minute and did not sample the goods.) Most of the candidates, however, seemed not to eat at all as they moved from shaking hands, to doing interviews with the assembled radio stations, to disappearing into a wooden barn, called the Deadwood Saloon, which served as the VIP area.
“I know where you’re going with this,” Walker laughed when asked if he’d sampled the classic Basque dish. He said he had not eaten anything at all at the event.
— Alexis Levinson is a senior political reporter for National Review.
Editor’s Note: This piece has been updated since its initial publication.