Donald Trump won the Kentucky Republican Caucus on Saturday, signaling that momentum continues for the New York businessman despite a crescendo of objections from establishment Republicans.
Trump took 36 percent of the vote in Kentucky while Texas Sen. Ted Cruz placed second, taking 32 percent of Kentucky Republican votes.
Florida Sen. Marco Rubio had 16 percent, and Ohio Gov. John Kasich had 14 percent.
Earlier in the day, Cruz secured a major victory in Kansas, taking 48 percent of the vote to Trump’s 23 percent.
Trump’s strongest showing was in Eastern Kentucky, where he racked up big victories in coal counties such as Pike County (where he won by 30 percent) and Harlan County (where he won by 9 percent). The real estate mogul also drew strong support in Southern Kentucky counties.
Trump won Jefferson County narrowly, beating Cruz by about 1.5 percent. Cruz won Fayette County by 4 percent.
Reports from across the state showed bustling crowds in many caucus locations, which were open Saturday from 10 a.m. until 4 p.m. EST.
Statewide, the number of caucus voters — nearly 230,000 — was similar to past primaries at just under 18 percent of registered voters.
More than 100 caucus-goers lined up in advance of doors opening at Henry Clay High School in Lexington Saturday morning. Organizers said the crowd was “larger than expected.”
Lexington attorney Chris Hunt was passing out information supporting candidate Ted Cruz outside the Lexington caucus site. Hunt said he likes the fact that the caucus is so early in the nominating process.
“It’s always been a little disappointing to me as a Kentuckian that we’ve been so late in the process that a lot of the time, our primary didn’t seem to have as much impact on the election,” he said.
The Kentucky Republican Party decided to switch to a March 5 caucus from a May 17 primary last year.
Party officials said the contest is much like a conventional election, but there are notable exceptions. Most counties have only one caucus location, meaning voters in remote parts of counties had to travel to a central polling place. That’s a change from traditional primaries, in which there are far more voting locations.
Also, supporters were allowed to advocate for their candidates very near the polling stations — normally, “electioneering” is forbidden within 100 feet of a polling place.
“I like the idea that people can gather some information, there can be some give and take. They can talk to somebody in person about those things if they’re on the fence,” Hunt said.
At a caucus location in far Western Kentucky’s Fulton County, WKMS reporter Becca Schimmel said there was “higher turnout than expected” at a private residence designated as that county’s polling place.
In Calloway County, WKMS reporter John Null said when doors opened, there were about 100 caucus-goers lined up, putting the site on track to surpass the 542 total Republican voters who participated in the county’s 2012 presidential primary.
Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul cast his ballot in Bowling Green this morning but declined to say who he voted for.
Although Paul was for a time running for Senate and the White House simultaneously, he suspended his presidential campaign last month to focus on reelection to his Senate seat. Paul convinced party officials to switch to a caucus last year to skirt a state law that forbids candidates from appearing on the same ballot twice.
Voters caucusing on Saturday expressed a variety of opinions about the candidates and the state of the country.
Lloyd Mullins, a semi-retired machine shop owner from Lexington, said he “just likes” Trump.
“I think he’s a loudmouth, but I think he’s a smart man. I think he’s a pretty savvy businessman,” Mullins said. “The only concern I have about Trump is he’s a loudmouth. If we get into some sort of national defense issue, he may come on a little too strong.”
Louisville resident Chris Michals said she supports Trump because he’s an outsider who can bring a new perspective to the Washington political scene.
“We need somebody fresh, we need somebody that’s going to listen to the people and take care of our country and take care of us and stop shipping our jobs offshore and letting illegal immigrants come into the country,” Michals said.
Louisville resident Tom Luking, who wouldn’t say which Republican he voted for, said he didn’t vote for Trump. Luking said if Trump secures the nomination, he would vote for a Democrat instead.
“I hope to get somebody other than Trump in there,” Luking said. “I really don’t have a feeling that I want to vote for somebody that’s advocating war crimes among other stupidities.”
Trump says he supports the use of waterboarding as an interrogation technique, even though the Bush administration banned it in 2006.
Kelly Thatcher, another Louisville resident who voted Saturday, said she wouldn’t vote for Trump if he were nominated.
“He is just too much. He is extreme, he’s a talking head, so many unsavory words,” she said.
Callie Babcock, a student at the University of Kentucky, voted for Marco Rubio on Saturday. So did her mother, Ruth Babcock.
Ruth said she would definitely vote for Trump if he were nominated. Callie said it’s “up in the air.”
“I’m working on her,” Ruth Babcock said of her daughter.
As Trump hurtles toward the Republican National Convention with the support of a majority of delegates, his opponents can only hope to siphon off enough to keep him from securing the nomination.
Trump needs 1,237 delegates to win. If he doesn’t reach that magic number, the convention would be thrown into chaos as delegates try to rally around a candidate who can secure the nomination.
Louisville resident Lacy Little said he thinks Republicans are conspiring against Trump.
“If they screw Trump over, I’ll never vote Republican again,” he said.
Despite initial fears that voter interest would be low because the caucus is new, turnout was steady across the state on Saturday. In a statement, Republican Party of Kentucky Chairman Mac Brown called the turnout “remarkable.”
“It is exciting to see Kentuckians so engaged, and it is great that so many voters used this opportunity to have a meaningful impact on the presidential race,” Brown said. “Today’s success was also possible because of the preparation and hard work of the Republican volunteers at the local level.”
WFPL News reporter Jacob Ryan contributed to this story.