Politics & Policy

A Caucus All His Own

The Kentucky GOP bends over backward for its favorite son.

Change is afoot in Kentucky.

Senator Rand Paul, who has spoken at length about Republicans’ need to reach out to previously hostile constituencies, appears to be on the verge of persuading the Bluegrass State GOP to shift from a presidential primary to a caucus — a nominating process that will almost certainly see much lower turnout. Kentucky’s other senator, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell — the voice of tradition and “regular order” in the Senate – has already signed off on the one-time rule change to help his fellow GOP senator.

Kentucky state law prohibits candidates from appearing twice on a ballot, creating a major headache for Paul, who is seriously thinking about running for president but also intends to run for reelection to the Senate in 2016. Because caucuses involve party members expressing their support at local meetings, instead of casting ballots, Paul would not technically appear on the ballot twice. Presto, headache averted. Paul, the tea-party darling who has spent much of his time in politics inveighing against career politicians, asked the Kentucky GOP to suspend its May 2016 presidential primary and hold a caucus instead — to keep his career options open.

As currently conceived, the change would be a one-time thing, plainly designed to accommodate Paul’s unique circumstances. The caucus would only be used to determine the winner of delegates to the presidential contest — all GOP nominations for Congress, the U.S. Senate, and other offices would remain on the May primary ballot – and after 2016, Kentucky would return to a primary system.

Last year, when the Kentucky Senate passed a bill to allow Paul to be on the ballot twice, the Democratic leadership in the state House blocked it.

McConnell’s endorsement played a key role in the Kentucky GOP’s decision to support the caucus workaround. Last fall, McConnell said that if Rand Paul ran for president, “We’ve developed a very tight relationship, and I’m for him. . . . Whatever he decides to do, he’ll be able to count on me.”

“Senator McConnell’s initial reaction to the caucus proposal could best be described as respectful skepticism, but after a lengthy discussion of the details with Senator Paul he has become convinced that switching from a primary to a caucus is worth his support,” said McConnell’s chief of staff, Brian McGuire, in a statement. “Not only would it be helpful to the Senator’s presidential campaign but, as a one-time event paid for with funds that he’d raise, [it] would do no damage to the state party or interfere with this year’s state races.”

One Republican operative who worked on one of the 2012 presidential campaigns says that Paul’s deal with the state party amounted to “smart politics” that could easily be justified as letting voters have a broader choice – particularly in the face of Democrats refusing to change the law.

“I’m not a Rand Paul guy, but it’s tough to get too pissed off about this,” says the operative. “If the Democrats want to restrict the voters’ ability to decide who their folks ought to be and what they can do, well, more power to Rand Paul for figuring out a way around it. . . . Paying for a caucus is not unusual. Iowa, in its infinite charm, sticks up every candidate that walks through there for enormous sums of money, to pay for the caucus and a lot more.”

Through this lens, there’s little risk that Paul’s outsider brand will be sullied by the perception that he’s playing politics: The state party’s decision is the rare closed-door, back-room deal that results in a slightly expanded choice for voters.

Traditionally, though, turnout in caucuses is significantly lower than in primaries.

A 2009 study from Harvard’s Kennedy School found that in 2008, “the average caucus attracted fewer than a fourth as many participants as did the average primary election.” Those who work nights or who have small children and no babysitters often can’t participate. Turnout in caucuses traditionally includes more die-hard supporters, and fair-weather supporters may stay home on winter nights.

On paper, the earlier caucus will make Kentucky Republicans more important in the GOP’s nominating process. But because of Paul’s home-state support and extremely good odds of winning, his GOP rivals may end up effectively conceding the state and concentrating their resources and efforts elsewhere.

On May 22, 2012, Mitt Romney won the Kentucky Republican presidential primary with 117,621 out of the 176,160 votes cast. Because a candidate needed to reach 15 percent to collect any delegates, Romney won all 42 delegates at stake that day.

The date for the 2016 caucus is not set yet, but in a letter to members of the Kentucky state GOP, Paul wrote that “a March caucus would allow Kentucky Republicans to vote in the middle of the Presidential primary, when our votes will matter.” The Kentucky Republican Party Central Committee will meet in August, when it is expected to finalize the change to a caucus and to approve the rules for them.

On Saturday, Paul offered his assistance to the state party to raise money to cover the costs of running the caucus. Doug Stafford, executive director of RAND PAC, said no decision on fundraising has been reached yet, but that the offer stands.

Stafford called this weekend’s state executive committee vote “a big step towards holding a presidential caucus in 2016.” He added, “We thank the members of RPK for their unanimous support and look forward to continuing this process.”

Allison Lundergan Grimes, the Kentucky Secretary of State and Democratic candidate for Senate last year, issued a statement critical of the state GOP decision:

Under Kentucky’s current primary system, all eligible voters are afforded protections to ensure that they are able to meaningfully participate. As the Commonwealth’s chief election official, I have serious concerns as to whether or not these protections – if in place at all – would be effective for a party caucus. Over the coming days and months, I will continue to monitor the situation.

Grimes has previously said she would take Paul to court if he attempted to appear on the ballot twice. Paul and the state GOP contend that they have all the legal authority they need to move to a caucus.

Unless some sort of legal challenge from Grimes derails the change, Paul will have successfully persuaded his state party’s leaders to completely change how they pick their nominee for president — all while keeping his well-cultivated image as an outsider standing against backroom deals and business as usual.

If Paul’s instincts are correct, the change could have broader national implications than anyone realizes. Back in 2008, Illinois moved its primary in order to further the nascent presidential ambitions of its then-junior senator.

His name was Barack Obama.

Jim Geraghty writes the Campaign Spot for National Review.

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