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Republican Party Leaders Have Mixed Opinions About a Presidential Caucus

J. Tyler Franklin

In about a week, Kentucky Republicans will decide the fate of Sen. Rand Paul’s plan to simultaneously run for president and the U.S. Senate next year.

The state party’s central committee — which is made up of more than 300 Republicans from across the state — will vote on whether to approve a presidential caucus slated for March 5, 2016, a Saturday.

In interviews this week with roughly 30 Republican county chairs and vice chairs, WFPL News found mixed opinions on the presidential caucus idea.

Many Republican central committee members also say they have not yet decided how they will vote on the caucus proposal. Some said they are waiting to hear presentations during a meeting Saturday in Frankfort in which the committee is expected to vote on the plan.

The presidential caucus proposal presents complex issues for Republican Party leaders, as well as opportunities beyond helping Kentucky's junior senator.

Bigger Than Paul

A presidential caucus — as opposed to the usual presidential primary election — is under consideration at Paul's request because state law prohibits him from seeking multiple offices on the same ballot. His Senate term ends next year.

But the considerations have become bigger than just helping Paul, who in recent polls has remained stuck in the middle of the packed Republican presidential field.

Many Republicans see a huge upside to moving from a May election to a March caucus — and it has nothing to do with Paul.

In recent years, the Republican presidential nomination has been settled, or close to settled, before Kentucky Republicans ever got to vote. But in this election's crowded field of GOP contenders, the Republican nomination could still be hotly contested by March.

Paul's support has fallen below 5 percent, according the latest Real Clear Politics average of national polls. Under a scenario where his presidential campaign doesn’t make it to March, Kentucky would be in play for the remaining candidates.

Republican presidential candidates would bring their campaigns to the Bluegrass State and speak to state issues, party leaders said. It would also mean advertising money spent in the state, and national attention for the party’s caucus.

Christian County Republican Chair Jason Hasert said voting in March would make Kentucky more relevant during the presidential election.

“I think it gets Kentucky some skin in the game where our presidential votes matter,” Hasert said.

Many other county chairs said they feel the same way. Regardless of whether a caucus would help Paul, the change could raise the visibility of the state, they said.

But some committee members said changing the voting process could confuse voters and decrease turnout.

John Hurt, vice chair of the Republican Party in Cumberland County, is among those not quite sure whether he supports the idea of a presidential caucus. He said he’s worried about changing the rules on voters who are accustomed to voting in primaries.

“The idea that it is a caucus around here, people are so unfamiliar with that,” Hurt said. “I think there will be a lot hesitation and uncertainty. I think that is my greatest concern: a lack of people being familiar with it.”

State party leaders have assured committee members they are working on creating ways to increase voter turnout through the caucus process.

Technical Difficulties?

But actually administering the caucus, which leaders have estimated would cost $500,000, also gives some Republicans pause. The caucus would have to be administered by local party chairs — most of whom don’t have experience running an election.

Unlike a primary election system where voters go to a polling place, Republican county parties run private events where voters cast their ballots.

For the 2016 election, eight state parties, Democrat and Republican, across the U.S. are planning to hold caucuses.

Barren County Chair Mark Haines supports Paul and said he is leaning toward voting for the caucus, but he has some reservations.

“It will be a lot of work and there will be a lot of volunteer hours that will be needed to pull this off,” he said.

In counties that are majority-Democrat or have a small population, local party leaders may not have enough volunteers to assist with the caucus.

Patricia Vincent, chair of the Graves County Republican Party, said she hasn’t made a decision.

Vincent said she — like others — is waiting to meet with other members of the local party before figuring out how to vote this weekend. But she said she is worried about having enough support to carry out a caucus in her county.

“If they wanted to have caucuses in every precinct, there is no way we could find people to do that,” she said.

Ed Keiley, Hart County’s party chair, said there are considerably more voting precincts in his county than there are active volunteers.

There are also counties in Kentucky without any chairpersons whatsoever, and counties that have only a chair or a vice chair. According to an online list on the Kentucky Republican Party’s website, Ballard, Elliott, Estill, Jackson, Knott, Livingston and Todd counties are missing both a chair and vice chair.

While a few committee members said they don’t like that this is being done to benefit a single person, many Republicans don’t want to risk making Paul choose between his struggling presidential campaign and his seat in the Senate.

At the moment, Paul’s U.S. Senate seat is relatively safe for him and Republicans in general. But some party leaders said that could be subject to change.

Thomas Lawhon of Owen County said Paul’s comments on multiple issues might hurt him in some socially conservative pockets back home.

Earlier this year, Paul said he was keeping “an open mind” as President Obama worked through a possible deal with Iran on its nuclear program; many Republicans opposed the deal well before it was finalized. Paul has since said he opposes the agreement.

Lawhon said he also doesn’t like that Paul has not pledged to create a constitutional amendment “defending traditional marriage.” And Paul raised funds during a medical marijuana expo in Denver, which may not sit well with social conservatives, Lawhon said.

“He would have to make one set of choices for a national run,” Lawhon said. "There might be a conflict in what’s most important — running for senator or running for president — with the demographic he is going for.”

Until recently, whether funding from Paul would be secure ahead of the vote was a big concern, too. Paul recently assured Republicans that the state party wouldn’t have to foot the roughly $500,000 bill for the caucus.

"Sen. Paul pledged to make sure that the caucus wouldn't cost the state party anything, and he stands by that pledge to fund it,"said campaign spokesperson Kelsey Cooper. "The money is in the bank, and we anticipate the support of the full central committee for a caucus in 2016."

The state party’s executive committee unanimously approved the idea of a caucus last March, following a closed-door meeting.

The rule change for a caucus will need two-thirds of the central committee’s vote for approval. Paul is also expected to make a presentation to the committee before members take a vote.