It’s too soon to tell if Kentucky GOP’s presidential caucus will be worth it

Republican presidential candidate Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., speaks Saturday, Dec. 5, 2015, during the Rising Tide Summit at the US Cellular Center in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
Republican presidential candidate Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., speaks Saturday, Dec. 5, 2015, during the Rising Tide Summit at the US Cellular Center in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Associated Press

U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell plans to participate in the Republican Party of Kentucky’s presidential preference caucus March 5, and he’s hoping he never has to do it again.

“I’m not a fan of caucuses and I hope this is the last one we have,” McConnell told the Herald-Leader.

With nominating contests set to begin in earnest when Iowans go to their caucuses Feb. 3, anxiety and optimism abound in Kentucky as party leaders move forward with the unusual contests.

The move away from a traditional primary was proposed and passed by party officials as a way to help U.S. Sen. Rand Paul get around a state law that prohibits candidates from appearing on the same ballot twice, but the idea also was sold as a way to grow the party and increase the state’s relevance in selecting a presidential nominee.

Now, with eight candidates committed to participate in the contests, Republicans are uncertain but hopeful that the caucuses will achieve those goals.

‘It’s not going to be New Hampshire’

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush became the first presidential candidate to pay the $15,000 fee and file for the caucuses when he flew into Louisville in late September. But the only Kentuckians who were able to see Bush were those who ponied up the dough to attend a fundraiser for the state party that Bush attended during his brief visit to the state.

Voters in early primary and caucus states, such as Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, enjoy the type of access to candidates that for years has left other states seething and envious.

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Part of the calculation in moving to an earlier nominating contest was the hope that candidates would be compelled to visit Kentucky and ask the state’s Republicans for their votes.

That has not happened, and the early states are continuing to enjoy the field’s undivided attention.

Florida Sen. Marco Rubio has called into Kentucky Sports Radio, and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson’s campaign bus was spotted rolling through the Bluegrass State, but the only rally to feature presidential candidates who aren’t named Paul came when U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee turned up to welcome Rowan County Clerk Kim Davis as she was released from jail this summer.

Still, party leaders are optimistic that could change once the voting gets underway and every delegate becomes crucial in a wide-open field.

“It’s not going to be New Hampshire,” said Scott Lasley, chairman of the Warren County Republican Party and the man in charge of coming up with the caucus proposal that Republicans narrowly approved with a two-thirds vote in August. “But that’s going to be the thing to watch.”

The candidates already have their eyes on the South because of the so-called “SEC primary” on March 1, when Alabama, Arkansas, Texas, Tennessee and Georgia voters go to the polls.

But whether the candidates will have the time, resources and desire to show up in Kentucky before March 5 is anybody’s guess given the uncertainty that grips the race.

It is a safe bet, though, that the campaigns will try to organize voters and turn them out in a race where many in the party are hoping the front-runner — Donald Trump — fizzles once the voting starts and every delegate could be crucial to determining a nominee.

“Since Kentucky is a caucus state, what matters more than candidate appearances is the organization,” said Eric Fehrnstrom, a senior adviser to Mitt Romney’s 2012 campaign. “My guess is the destination for many of the candidates in early March will be the big primary states like Michigan that vote just a few days after Kentucky.”

My support for this was entirely related to Rand Paul’s interest in running.

U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell

Mike Biachi, executive director of the Republican Party of Kentucky, said the move to a caucus was “creating a more competitive environment than we’ve had in the past.”

Bush, Paul, Trump, Rubio, Carson, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Cruz and Ohio Gov. John Kasich have paid their filing fees to be on the ballot, but only Paul, who is also running for re-election to his Senate seat next year, has organized events in the state.

The deadline for candidates to file to be on the ballot is Jan. 7.

“I hope we have candidates here and really be visible in competing for our votes,” Biachi said, adding that several county parties have started inviting the candidates to their events. “It’s still early… but we’re getting more attention than we’ve had in the past.”

By awarding delegates proportionally instead of winner-takes-all, the state GOP has created an inviting opportunity for candidates to pick off delegates, an opportunity that has been enhanced, ironically, by Paul’s lackluster showings in the polls.

Lasley acknowledged that irony, and a number of Republicans think Paul’s struggles nationally make the state more competitive than it would be if Kentucky’s junior senator was viewed as a lock to win all of the state’s delegates.

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‘Dissatisfaction among the voters’

McConnell, meanwhile, said he hoped the caucus would be “a one-year experiment.”

“My support for this was entirely related to Rand Paul’s interest in running,” he said.

McConnell’s concerns, which are a frequent criticism of caucuses that aren’t held in Iowa, is that the arcane and unusual nature of the contests drives down participation rates.

Lasley, the caucuses’ architect, said that beyond candidate visibility, turnout will be the thing to watch.

Democrats have used the question of participation to criticize the move to a caucus for months.

On Dec. 16, Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, the state’s chief elections officer and a consistent critic of the move, publicly announced that her office had received official notice from the state Republican Party that it was holding a caucus.

In her announcement, Grimes continued to criticize the Republicans’ decision, saying that while she was “not convinced a caucus is the best method for voters to have their voices heard, I want to make sure Republican voters are aware of how they can participate in their party’s process.”

Grimes noted that the state tried caucuses in 1984, and she cited a 1989 report from the Interim Joint Committee on Elections and Constitutional Amendments that said the caucuses “generally were met with dissatisfaction among the voters, mainly because many did not understand the process and many who did understand the procedure viewed it as a return to the days when nominees were chosen by a select few, behind closed doors.”

In 2008, Kansas Republicans moved to a caucus, and participation — 4 percent of voters took part and 10 of 105 counties participated — was decidedly underwhelming, but it was an improvement in a state where the nomination preference had been decided by a handful of party leaders.

The buy-in from the county parties has been really strong.

Mike Biachi, executive director of the Republican Party of Kentucky

While Kentucky Republicans looked to Kansas as a model, they were thrilled to be able to announce in a “Call to Caucus” that there would be caucus locations in 111 of the state’s 120 counties.

“The buy-in from the county parties has been really strong,” Biachi said.

Voters in the remaining nine counties may go to a neighboring county that is holding a caucus or vote by absentee ballot.

Biachi said low participation rates were a “fair concern,” and while he doesn’t have “a turnout prediction or a certain goal,” the focus has been on ensuring that Republican voters who want to participate may do so.

‘Maybe wasn’t worth it’

The other selling point put forth by Paul’s allies was that the state party, in the midst of a registration boom, could use the contest as a way to further build its ranks.

The party has created a caucus web page, complete with “Caucus 101” to help voters navigate the new and different way of picking a presidential candidate.

Additionally, they have hired a caucus director and two field staffers who worked on the party’s efforts this year to elect Gov. Matt Bevin.

Only voters who are registered as Republicans by Dec. 31 will be able to participate in the caucuses. Party leaders are hopeful that conservative Democrats and independents will change their registration so they may participate.

Biachi said the party has been discussing whether to pay for advertising to draw more attention to the caucuses, but he said no decision has been made.

Lasley said he had seen anecdotal evidence that the caucus was helping bring more Kentuckians to the party, saying he knew a man who “left the party locally here and has rejoined so he can participate in the caucus.”

But Lasley conceded that the move to a caucus “maybe wasn’t worth it unless the turnout’s off the charts and maybe some party-building activities come out of it.”

“I’m hopeful that that happens,” he said. “If not, I think this is probably not the right answer.”

But if turnout is high, Lasley said the state party will have built the infrastructure needed to hold successful caucuses in the future.

“The next two months will tell us whether it was worth it or not,” he said.