ALEXANDRIA, Ky. -- Republican party leaders didn’t know what to expect when the Kentucky GOP hosted a presidential caucus for the first time in decades.
But they weren’t expecting Republican voters to clog highways and form lines out the door in hopes of casting a ballot for the presidential race Saturday.
“We’re all pretty pleasantly surprised,” said Damon Thayer, the majority leader for the Kentucky State Senate and a Republican. “I was overwhelmed at the turnout from Republicans who are so enthusiastic and energetic about this election that they came out on a muddy, dreary Saturday in a caucus.”
So many voters showed up, in fact, that volunteers had to shut the doors to their poll locations and turn away voters at 4 p.m. when the caucus was scheduled to end.
Leading up to the caucus, party leaders said they weren’t sure how many voters would come out to caucus in Kentucky, where roughly 1.3 million Republican voters are registered in the state.
Some Republicans said voters were confused over how the caucus would work ahead of Saturday. The state Republican party only designated caucus location per county and voters in nine Kentucky counties had to travel to a rural site to cast their vote.
Tom Lampe, a Campbell County Commissioner and Republican who volunteered to work the caucus, expected low turnout Saturday. He had heard voters say they were confused about how to vote and where in the caucus.
But on Saturday, a steady line formed out the door of Campbell County High School, where the caucus was held.
"It was crazy, I was so wrong," Lampe said. "I would have lost a big bet."
In Boone County, Republican leaders were expecting about half of the 8,800 who turned out for the 2012 primary. Boone County Republican Party Caucus Chair Phyllis Sparks said they instead had a "wild" turnout, but "it was exciting at the same time."
"This was out best shot at it -- I think we did really well," Sparks said. "If we consider doing this again in four years, certainly we will evaluate all the problems and try to come up with a different process."
Kentucky party voters normally vote for a presidential nominee in May, typically once the party’s nominees have already picked up so many delegates that the race is decided once the state’s voters head to the polls.
This year’s caucus changed that and moved up the decision for Republican voters to March. The Republican nomination is still very much up for grabs, with four strong contenders remaining in the race.
That may have driven some of Saturday’s unexpected traffic at the caucus. For the first time in years, Kentucky GOP voters’ ballots actually will help determine the party nominee, said Mike Biagi, the executive director of the Kentucky Republican Party.
“In the past, Republicans don’t have a real influence in the contest,” Biagi said of Kentucky’s voters. “Kentucky Republicans are relevant in this Republican nomination contest for the first time in 40 years. (They’re) voting at a time when presidential candidates are still competing for votes.”
Biagi said the state’s voters also received more campaign visits this year as a result of the early caucus.
Thayer, who represents multiple counties in the state including Kenton County, said two things likely drove high turnout at the caucus: anger and better voter relevance in the presidential nomination process.
“I’m sensing a bottled up frustration in Kentucky. Today was the first chance for people to express that,” Thayer said. “I do think voters feel like they’ve got a lot at stake here.”
The caucus shaped up to be a showdown between front-runner Donald Trump and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz early Saturday evening.
Lampe said he believed Cruz and Trump supporters turned out in droves Saturday. Some voters, however, simply showed up to cast their ballot against a Cruz or Trump nomination.
"People are fired up about a certain couple of candidates," Lampe said. "Or, they're saying, 'hey, I'm going to vote against him.'"
John Genovese contributed reporting.