GEORGETOWN — Donald J. Trump drove surprisingly strong turnout in Kentucky’s first-ever Republican presidential caucuses Saturday.
“I want to see change and I think he’s the man who will do it,” said Georgetown auctioneer Chip Foley. “I’m fed up with the insiders.”
But amid the many fans of the New York businessman, some Bluegrass voters said they came out on a cold, rainy day to help keep him from winning the party’s nomination.
“Anybody but Trump,” homemaker Michelle Glenn said as she stood in a long line to vote in the gymnasium of the First Methodist Church in Georgetown, where police had to direct heavy traffic.
Glenn said she would vote for Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who appeared to be the main beneficiary of the anti-Trump vote. Patricia Fannin of Georgetown also said she would vote for Cruz because “He’s standing up against Trump.”
The big loser was Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who canceled an appearance in Lexington the day before, despite support from much of Kentucky’s Republican establishment, and appeared to suffer from his locker-room-style attacks on Trump.
“I was with Rubio until yesterday,” because of his style, said Mary VanNunen of Georgetown, who switched to Cruz. She said of Rubio, “I didn’t like his vulgarness.”
Even Rubio supporter Jan Dronbrock of Versailles raised that topic: “I feel he is the best qualified, and up until this last time, he wasn’t slinging mud.”
Computer programmer Jim Cook of Georgetown said his mind was open until Rubio attacked Trump and became the candidate of “the power brokers in Washington.”
Cook said he was voting for Trump, but Cruz also benefited from his outsider image.
“He has fought the Democrats,” said retired homemaker Betty Packwood of Georgetown. She said she liked Trump, but was “a little nervous” about him: “He might jump and do something that might hurt us.”
Kentucky held a caucus so U.S. Sen. Rand Paul could circumvent the state law banning candidates from appearing on one ballot for two offices. Paul pulled out of the presidential race after the Iowa caucus.
Because Kentucky Republicans had never held a presidential caucus, no one really knew what to expect, but party officials said they were surprised and pleased by the turnout.
Even as they were feet from the polls, some voters said they were undecided, but most said there was one candidate they knew they wouldn’t support.
“I’m out here to try to stop Trump,” said state employee Jason Pursiful. “I just don’t think he’s going to be good for America and I think he’s going to be the nominee.”
Pursiful said he was wavering between Cruz and Rubio, and a few others said likewise. But retired videographer Steve Collier said he was torn between Trump and Cruz, who “would make a nice ticket,” because “We need someone in there who’s not afraid to buck the system.”
Similarly torn was a Versailles woman who said she was a public employee and didn’t want her co-workers to know she is a Republican. The woman said she was leaning toward Rubio, “but I don’t think he’s got enough chance” to win the nomination. As for Cruz, “I don’t think he’s going to have any kind of chance in the general election.”
Several voters said Cruz is a strong constitutionalist or a true conservative.
Trump’s appeal, as an outsider who is largely financing his own campaign, was illustrated by the Versailles mother-and-son team of Elwanda and Tony Montgomery.
She said, “I want somebody in there besides that bunch that’s in there.”
He said, “I like it that he’s not bought.”
Not all Trump supporters had such simple explanations for their votes.
Courtney Sawyer of Versailles, a former teacher with a master’s degree, said she would vote for Trump because “I believe he can inspire the American people to get back to work and give jobs that are needed,” as well as combat the drug problem by securing the Mexican border.
“More than anything else, people are calling for a leader to motivate and inspire them,” Sawyer said. “And I think he will listen to the people more than the other candidates.”
Al Cross, former C-J political writer, is director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues and associate professor in the University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Telecommunications. His opinions are his own, not UK’s.