FRANKFORT, Ky. -- U.S. Sen. Rand Paul will play a role March 5 in the Republican presidential caucus that was created at his urging last August.
But it’s safe to say that his participation will be greatly diminished compared to what he envisioned seven months ago, when Paul convinced the Kentucky Republican Party to swap the May presidential primary election for a March caucus so that he could run for president as well as for re-election to his Senate seat.
In one respect, the first-term senator who dropped out of the presidential race Feb. 3 has traded a rather small club for one that’s much larger.
Instead of being one of five Republicans still running for the party’s nomination for president, Paul will be one of 1.3 million registered Republicans who will be eligible to cast a ballot in the caucus, which runs from 10 a.m. until 4 p.m. in 111 of the state’s 120 counties.
Mike Biagi, executive director of the Republican party in the state, and top Republican officials in Kenton and Boone counties said all of the candidates have been invited to the state and their counties.
But by Sunday afternoon, only two of the candidates – Donald Trump and Ben Carson – had said they will campaign in Kentucky before the caucus. Carson scheduled a town hall meeting for supporters Monday in Lexington while Trump was scheduled to hold a rally in Louisville on Tuesday, four hours after he planned to speak in Columbus, Ohio.
But, following a poor showing during Super Tuesday's primaries and caucus, Carson's campaigning in the area seems up in the air. The retired neurosurgeon stopped short of officially ending his candidacy Wednesday but said he sees no "political path forward."
Compared to the time and energy that the five candidates invested elsewhere in the country, they don’t appear to be too concerned about Kentucky’s 46 delegates to the national convention.
To a degree, their less-than-enthusiastic attitude about the state may be linked to high stakes in the delegate numbers game.
Kentucky Republicans will caucus four days after “Super Tuesday,” when 11 states and American Samoa will be voting, and nearly half the delegates needed to win the nomination are in play. The Kentucky caucus also falls on the same day that four other states will be selecting delegates.
Six more states vote in the three-day period immediately after Kentucky Republicans meet.
Paul’s only role March 5 will be to cast a ballot for the candidate he favors, which appears to be a closely guarded secret.
According to Kelsey Cooper, a member of Paul’s staff in Washington, D.C., “Sen. Paul will not be endorsing anyone in the presidential primary.”
“He plans to vote in the caucus, but he has ended his presidential campaign and is solely focused on his work in the U.S. Senate and his re-election to the United States Senate,” Biagi said.
“Sen. Paul will be headlining his hometown's GOP Lincoln Day Dinner in Warren County the night before the caucus, and will participate in the caucus the following day,” Cooper explained.
As might be expected, Cooper downplayed the fact that Paul convinced the party to adopt the caucus plan so that he could pursue the presidency as well as his Senate seat. Kentucky election law prohibits a candidate from running for two offices in the same election. That means Paul would have been required to run for president or for senator — but not both — if he had opted to participate in the May 17 primary election.
As things stand now, his name will be on the May ballot as a candidate for the U.S. Senate.
Biagi, Cooper and Republican officials in Northern Kentucky deflected the notion that the caucus, approved by the GOP only for the 2016 election cycle, was all about Paul’s presidential aspirations.
They insisted that the caucus will have many other advantages for the party.
“For the first time, Kentucky's Republican voters have the opportunity to play an early and relevant role in the presidential primary nominating process,” Cooper said. “In addition to having their voices heard, the caucus gives … Republicans the chance to grow the party, will be a great opportunity for county parties to rally Republican voters ahead of the 2016 elections, and in counties with a March 8 special election, the allowing of electioneering gives Republicans a crucial advantage in driving turnout for our candidates just three days before that election is held.”
Biagi argued that the caucus is key because of its potential for relevance.
“One thing that’s been really positive about the caucus is that it’s making Kentucky Republicans more relevant than anyone can remember in the past in choosing the Republican nominee for president because our usual primary in May is done at a time that, historically, the nomination has already been decided by then, and therefore it’s just kind of a formality with no real influence,” he said.
Greg Shumate, who chairs the Kenton County Republican executive committee, acknowledged that the driving force behind the switch to a caucus system was to clear the way for Paul to run for both offices.
But he also said the March 5 caucus has a substantial upside because, as Biagi explained, it makes Kentucky Republicans far more relevant in the process of selecting a presidential candidate and because it provides an opportunity to build the party by attracting volunteers.
As in other caucus sites throughout the state, Shumate said Kenton County Republicans will make space available to all of the candidates or their representatives as well as Republican organizations inside the caucus location at Summit View Academy's middle school, 5006 Madison Pike in Independence.
People who were registered as Republicans by last Dec. 31 will then move to another room where they will cast a ballot for any one of the 11 candidates who filed by the January deadline.
The ballot includes the five candidates who are still battling for the nomination — Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Ben Carson and John Kasich — as well as Paul and five others who have withdrawn from the race: Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, Carly Fiorina, Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee.
Shumate said the party will scrutinize the caucus results to determine if the system will ever be used again.
“Unless there are some very good results in the party building, I think this will be a one-time event,” he said.
Shumate declined to reveal his choice in the caucus.
Republicans who attend the Boone County caucus will have a chance to chat with representatives of the presidential candidates before they vote at the Florence Baptist Church, 642 Mt. Zion Road, according to Phyllis Sparks, vice chair of the Republican organization in the county and chair of the caucus.
Once they’ve voted, they will have the opportunity to meet Republican officials and officeholders and get information about several issues that are important to Boone County Republicans: opposition to the Common Core educational standards, support for the I-275 eastern bypass as a way to reduce traffic on the Brent Spence Bridge, and opposition to charging tolls to use the bridge, Sparks said.
“We’re struggling to get people to pay attention to this (the caucus),” said Sparks, who added that most voters are far more familiar with the May primary election procedure that dates back many years.
Campbell County Republicans will hold their caucus at Campbell County High School, located at 909 Camel Drive in Alexandria. A spokesman for Campbell County Republicans could not be reached for comment.
Once the votes for each candidate are tabulated statewide, candidates who receive at least 5 percent of the votes cast will receive delegates in proportion to the percentage of votes that he or she received. If Donald Trump, for example, receives 50 percent of the votes, he will receive 23 delegates, one half of the 46 delegates Kentucky will send to the national convention.
Because Paul proposed the caucus, his campaign made a commitment to cover the cost of the event. His campaign has already contributed $250,000 to finance the caucus.
Republican officials have said they think that $250,000 should be sufficient to pay the bills.