FRANKFORT (AP) — On the night before Kentucky’s presidential caucus, more than 350 Republicans sat in front of folded red napkins in a ballroom at Western Kentucky University. But Scott Lasley, the county GOP chairman, was scowling.
“Rafael Cruz was supposed to come here,” Lasley said, referring to Republican candidate Ted Cruz’s father and one of his top surrogates. “But he went to Kansas.”
A pause, while Lasley threw up his hands.
With one notable exception, the presidential campaigns did not come to Kentucky for its first Republican caucus since 1984. But the voters did. While party leaders fretted the caucus might go by unnoticed, more than 229,000 Kentuckians turned out to vote on a chilly, rainy Saturday. More than 72,000 of them voted for Cruz, who finished second despite not campaigning here and left the state with 15 delegates.
Donald Trump, who won the state with more than 82,000 votes, got 17 delegates. Trump held a rally on Tuesday before the election, becoming the only top contending candidate to campaign in Kentucky. Marco Rubio and John Kasich, who finished third and fourth, each received seven delegates.
State party leaders decided not to spend money advertising the caucus, assuming the candidates would do that for them. They even rented a ballroom at a Louisville hotel on Friday in an attempt to tempt candidates to make a campaign stop. But no one came.
Yet across the state, 98 out of 120 counties saw turnout increases from the 2012 Republican presidential primary. The largest was Hickman County, where only 98 people voted in 2012 but more than 330 cast ballots on Saturday, a 240 percent increase. Republican Party of Kentucky Executive Director Mike Biagi said the vote totals could have been more because thousands of registered Democrats and independents showed up wanting to vote. They were turned away, but not before some of them changed their registration, he said.
“Voters historically have not had an opportunity to have an influence in Kentucky,” Biagi said.
In Warren County, the line to vote stretched the length of the conference center, then outside into the parking lot. But inside, about 30 volunteers were waiting to check voter registration rolls, meaning most people had to wait about 15 minutes before casting a ballot.
One of the first people through the line was 90-year-old Edna Hawkins.
“I’m glad to finally get to vote for somebody except the very last candidate,” she said. “They all drop out before they get to Kentucky. So I’m delighted to see it.”
The caucus was supposed to have been an easy win for U.S. Sen. Rand Paul’s presidential campaign. Kentucky Republicans voted to hold a caucus specifically so Paul could 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. Yet Paul ended his presidential campaign after the Iowa caucuses, focusing now only on his re-election campaign.
“(Saturday’s) Kentucky Presidential caucus is a reminder to Kentucky voters just how hard Rand Paul tried to abandon them,” said Sadie Weiner, communications director for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
Yet Paul was greeted warmly by voters in his home county on Saturday. Steve Eaton, a 57-year-old bus driver, told Paul he supported him and urged him to not let President Barack Obama appoint someone to the U.S. Supreme Court to replace the late Justice Antonin Scalia. Paul himself spent most of his speech on Friday night to Warren County Republicans talking about how he would not vote to confirm any nominee from Obama.
The issue gave Paul something to talk about besides his presidential campaign, although he did joke with reporters that his name was still on the ballot in Kentucky.
“I think maybe we will unsuspend (my campaign,)” Paul said before his spokeswoman quickly added: “Don’t tweet that.”