BOWLING GREEN, Ky. — The rambunctious Republican race for president comes to Kentucky on Saturday with a little-publicized caucus that has some party leaders worrying about low turnout.
Caucus locations open at 10 a.m. local time across the state and close at 4 p.m. Most counties have just one location, though some larger counties have multiple sites to vote. Nine smaller counties won’t have a caucus location at all, sending would-be caucus-goers to neighboring counties to cast their ballots.
The caucus was proposed and paid for by U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, the former Republican presidential candidate who wanted to run for president and re-election at the same time without violating a state law banning candidates from appearing on the ballot twice in the same election. Paul convinced party leaders to ditch their May primary for a March caucus, but only after he agreed to donate $250,000 to cover the party’s expenses.
Paul pitched the caucus as a way to make sure he was treated fairly. But after his poll numbers started falling, the focus shifted to making Kentucky more relevant in presidential politics by having a caucus earlier on the electoral calendar.
“For the first time ever, presidential candidates will be coming to Kentucky to compete for your vote,” Paul wrote in an email to supporters Friday.
But Friday afternoon, a hotel ballroom in Louisville the state party had rented for candidate rallies sat empty, with rows of white table cloths sitting behind a locked door. Most of the candidates have stayed away, distracted by Super Tuesday and a televised Republican debate Thursday night in Michigan. Ben Carson held a rally in Lexington on Monday before effectively ending his campaign Wednesday. Front-runner Donald Trump held a large rally Tuesday in Louisville, where local police are investigating after two protesters said they were punched and shoved by Trump’s supporters.
Marco Rubio had scheduled a rally in Lexington on Friday but canceled the day before. He campaigned in Kansas, one of five states voting Saturday, but called in to the popular Kentucky Sports Radio show Friday.
“Kentucky is relevant. It’s going to matter,” Rubio said.
Friday night, Paul attended a local Republican Party fundraiser in his home county, joking with reporters about the one delegate he managed to pick up after a disappointing campaign for president. But Paul’s name will appear on the ballot in Kentucky, and he has not endorsed anyone or mobilized his supporters to vote. And he criticized the actions of 2012 Republican nominee Mitt Romney, saying his decision to criticize Trump publicly could backfire.
“If you are considering voting for Donald trump and someone from the establishment tells you it’s a really bad idea, maybe you react exactly the opposite,” Paul said. “I spent about a year pointing out sort of what I thought the advantages of one candidacy were versus the other. I think I’m done pointing out those differences.”
Paul said he expects the turnout to be low, citing a “knowledge barrier.” The party has not held a presidential caucus since 1984. Most voters are used to voting on a Tuesday in May at their local precinct. Instead, they will have to go to one location on a Saturday between the hours of 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. And once they are there, they could find people inside the caucus location wanting to talk to them about their vote_something not allowed in an election run by the state government.
“You could see some surprises. I think the polls show Trump ahead in Kentucky, but I think it’s going to be a small caucus,” Paul said. “Nobody outside of the Republican party is allowed to vote. I think that maybe doesn’t argue as much to Trump’s strengths.”
Reporter Claire Galofaro contributed reporting from Louisville, Kentucky.