Government & Politics

Trump incumbency has Kansas GOP considering scrapping 2020 presidential caucus

The Kansas Republican Party is poised to cancel its 2020 presidential caucus, citing high costs and the looming possibility there may be no candidates opposing President Donald Trump’s re-election bid, a top party official said Monday.

Party Chairman Kelly Arnold raised that likelihood last weekend during a national Republican meeting in New Mexico. On Monday, he said it would be hard to justify spending party dollars on a caucus with only one candidate.

The Kansas caucus doesn’t select the delegates to the Republican National Convention, where the party’s nominee will be chosen. But it does bind the state’s delegates to support particular candidates, based roughly on the percentage of rank-and-file Republicans who voted for them, Arnold said.

When the GOP doesn’t hold a caucus, most of its delegates to the national convention will be bound based on votes cast by party leaders at a state convention. A smaller number will be bound through conventions in each of the state’s four congressional districts, he said.

The state party has never held a caucus when the GOP has had an incumbent president seeking re-election, Arnold said.

Until 1992, the state ran Republican and Democratic primaries. Since then, the only Republican to seek election to a second term has been George W. Bush in 2004. He faced only token opposition nationally for renomination and was unopposed in Kansas.

From 1996 to 2016, the Kansas Legislature canceled the presidential primary every four years to save money. In 2016, the Legislature permanently canceled future primary elections.

“If the people of Kansas preferred to have a state-run primary, we’d definitely be open to that, but it would cost the state millions of dollars to do it,” Arnold said.

The state bowing out leaves the rules of selection of nominees — and the cost of doing it — up to the parties.

Republican caucuses have followed a secret ballot process, similar to a regular election, to apportion their national convention delegates to candidates.

In 2008, 2012 and 2016, Republicans rented the Century II Convention and Performing Arts Center for their voters to gather, listen to speeches from the candidates or surrogates, and then cast their ballots. Thousands of voters participated each time.

In all three instances, Kansas voters sided with candidates who didn’t win their party’s nomination.

They picked former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee over Arizona Sen. John McCain in 2008; former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum over former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney in 2012; and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz over Trump in 2016.

Those caucuses cost the state party hundreds of thousands of dollars to run, paid for with candidate filing fees and donations, Arnold said.

He said it wouldn’t be a good use of donor money to hold a caucus with only one candidate. And even if another prominent Republican does step forward to challenge Trump, there’s no guarantee that he or she would choose to contest the Kansas caucus and pay the filing fee, he said.

Without a caucus, a candidate challenging Trump could try to garner convention delegates by wooing participants in the state and district conventions, he said.

A big part of the cost of a caucus is ballot security, ensuring that people who vote are all registered Republicans and that they only vote once, Arnold said.

While Sedgwick County had only one caucus site, others had several close to each other, he said.

“Johnson County had a location in every (state) Senate district,” he said. “Theoretically, if (the party) didn’t have a system set up, you could run to four or five different sites and vote and we’d never know it until two weeks later when we did a cross check.”

At Democratic caucuses, voters generally gather in a meeting hall and step to different sides of the room to be counted for their candidates. However, the party has at times resorted to paper ballots because of overcrowded caucus sites.

Unlike the Republicans, Democrats allow everyone who shows up to caucus, although they have to fill out a voter registration card affiliating with the party if they weren’t already a member.

Senior Journalist Dion Lefler has been providing award-winning coverage of local government, politics and business in Wichita for 20 years. Dion hails from Los Angeles, where he worked for the LA Daily News, the Pasadena Star-News and other papers. He’s a father of twins, director of lay servant ministries in the United Methodist Church and plays second base for the Old Cowtown vintage baseball team.