With GOP caucus a week away, Republicans see excitement, advantages of holding March nominating contest

02/27/2016 10:10 PM

CYNTHIANA — With Kentucky’s 46 Republican delegates up for grabs more than two months earlier than normal in a high-profile and bare-knuckled presidential contest, Harrison County Republican Party Chairman Mike Fisher says members of his party are eager to participate in next Saturday’s GOP caucus.

“People are excited this time around,” Fisher said Saturday before the Harrison County GOP Lincoln Day Lunch.

The five remaining presidential hopefuls will turn their focus to Kentucky and three other states after Super Tuesday, and New York real estate mogul Donald Trump and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson have scheduled campaign stops in the state. Carson will hold a town hall in Lexington on Monday, and Trump, the front-runner, will stump at the Kentucky International Convention Center in Louisville the next day.

The process had been initiated as a means for U.S. Sen. Rand Paul to mount a presidential bid and run for re-election to the Senate, circumventing a constitutional ban on appearing more than once on a ballot. The candidate transferred $250,000 in September to finance the caucus as part of his pledge that the state and county parties would not pay the bill.

Even though he ended his presidential campaign after a fifth-place finish in the Iowa caucus, Paul, R-Ky., said Kentucky’s version will help the party expand its reach ahead of four special elections March 8 with partisan balance of the state’s House of Representatives at stake. Republicans haven’t held majority control of the chamber since 1921, and winning all four of the special elections would put the House in a 50-50 split between Democrats and the GOP.

“It helps us to get organized,” Paul told Pure Politics of Kentucky’s caucus. “There’s going to be four special elections for the state House three days later. I think the caucus will help us to get organized to win those state House seats also.”

Excitement surrounding this year’s nominating contest has Fisher predicting that up to 25 percent of Harrison County’s 3,793 Republicans will cast ballots at their caucus sites, with local party officials preparing for 30 percent turnout.

Fisher said the Republican Party of Kentucky has provided training for local party officials running caucuses, and after watching caucuses in Iowa and Nevada unfold, he says some Harrison County voters have asked him procedural questions on exactly how they’ll cast their ballots.

“There’s a misunderstanding that any caucus is the same caucus,” Fisher said. “… They saw what took place in Iowa. They were a little concerned about, they weren’t so sure they wanted to stand on a side of a room or raise their hand. They wanted to make sure it was more of primary type, and I think Kentucky did an amazing job planning that.”

Fisher said local Republicans will post signs at usual voting precincts, directing wayward voters to Harrison County’s caucus site as Westside Elementary School.

Caucuses will be open for voting from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. next Saturday, with candidates who earn at least 15 percent support collecting a proportionate share of the state’s delegates.

Voters will also notice candidates and surrogates at caucus sites squeezing last-minute support from undecideds. Fisher said they’re only allowed midway through caucus sites and not in voting areas, but he expects to see candidates running in the May 17 primaries campaigning at caucus sites next weekend.

In Harrison County, Lexington fire lieutenant and former Falmouth Mayor Mark Hart will face Harrison County Magistrate Sam Pierce in the GOP primary to face Rep. Tom McKee, D-Cynthiana, in the fall. U.S. Rep. Andy Barr, R-Lexington, also has a primary foe in Roger Brill, of Cynthiana, in the 6th Congressional District.

“I would be disappointed if Mr. Pierce or Mr. Brill or any of those guys, Andy Barr, any of them didn’t show because it’s a chance to actually meet your other Republican voters,” Fisher said, “and you should take advantage of that.”

Paul has a primary foe as well, but he has said he will stay in Bowling Green for next Saturday’s caucus. He’ll likely face Lexington Mayor Jim Gray, who must first survive a seven-way primary, in the Nov. 8 election.

Gray has a late start in filing his paperwork on the last possible day, but he can dip into his personal wealth to jumpstart his campaign thanks to his family’s construction business.

Paul’s Senate fundraising has lagged as in running dual campaigns for the presidency and Senate. At the end of 2014, his campaign reported $2.9 million cash on hand, and a year later, that total dropped to $1.2 million.

Gray’s campaign accused Paul of pushing his Senate office aside as he sought the Republican presidential nomination, pointing to his financial backing of the caucus as a means to continue both campaigns.

“His entire focus the last few years has been on his presidential aspirations, and that’s hurt not just his fundraising but also his reputation among Kentuckians,” Gray campaign spokeswoman Cathy Lindsey said in a statement.

Paul, when asked about his fundraising, instead focused on his credentials as a senator as he seeks a second term. He said he’s “happy to run on my record,” and he also highlighted his first term in the Senate in remarks to about 85 Republicans in the Cynthiana Country Club.

“I’ve been actively working for the voters of Kentucky, made 96 percent of my votes throughout the whole races I’ve been involved with, but also was able to return $2.4 million to the taxpayer by not spending wasted money that’s in our office budget,” Paul said.

“So I’m proud of my record, being a sane voice in Washington for not borrowing more money. We’re up to a $19 trillion debt. Someone’s got to stand up to that spending.”

Some voters have been known to be finicky with their picks, as a number decide moments before casting their ballots.

Paul sounds like a voter who has made up his mind. Asked twice whether he had decided on a candidate ahead of Saturday’s caucus, Paul said he would not be endorsing anyone.

“I’m going to stay out of any endorsements, and I’m going to let the voters of Kentucky just kind of make up their own mind on it, but my job I think at this point is to try to bring all the Kentucky Republicans together, support the caucus and try and take over the state House,” he said.

Fisher hasn’t picked a candidate yet, although he said he’s leaning toward Ohio Gov. John Kasich.

“I do feel the governorship should not necessarily be a prerequisite, but I just think it prepares folks a little bit better,” he said. “But there is none of the candidates that I couldn’t stand behind. I think they are all amazing candidates this year.”

Although he’s inclined to support Kasich, Fisher sees Trump and Texas U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz collecting a lot of votes in Harrison County.

“That’s just discussing,” he noted.

Correction: A previous version of this report indicated that 45 delegates would be in contention during Saturday’s caucus. The number of Republican delegates in Kentucky is actually 46.

Kevin Wheatley

Kevin Wheatley is a reporter for Pure Politics. He joined cn|2 in September 2014 after five years at The State Journal in Frankfort, where he covered Kentucky government and politics. You can reach him at kevin.wheatley@charter.com or 502-792-1135 and follow him on Twitter at @KWheatley_cn2.


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