FRANKFORT, Ky. — Donald Trump continued his march through the South on Saturday, taking the top spot in a Kentucky Republican caucus that was paid for by former rival U.S. Sen. Rand Paul.
The boisterous businessman was leading Texas Sen. Ted Cruz by about 4 percentage points statewide thanks to wins by small margins throughout Kentucky's eastern coalfields just days after he promised he would lead a comeback for the coal industry if elected president. Trump also won in Louisville, Kentucky's largest city, while Cruz took Lexington.
Despite Trump's win, he will share most of Kentucky's 46 delegates with Cruz. State party leaders opted for a generous proportional share of delegates when they approved the caucus format last year in an attempt to encourage more candidates to campaign in the state. Marco Rubio and John Kasich also performed well enough to earn delegates.
Trump won in Kentucky despite heavy criticism from Paul, the state's junior U.S. Senator who once called Trump "an orange-faced windbag." Trump famously attacked Paul's looks during a televised debate and frequently criticized him on social media. Trump continued his attacks on Saturday, writing on his Twitter account: "To the people of Kentucky, Rand Paul didn't want you. Now he runs back to his presidential failure."
Kentucky's caucus was supposed to be a homecoming for Paul, who convinced party leaders to ditch the traditional mid-May primary in favor of an early March caucus. That way, Paul could run for president and re-election to his Senate seat at the same time without violating a state law that bans candidates from appearing on the ballot twice in the same election.
But Paul ended his presidential bid after a poor showing in Iowa, and on Saturday he was just another voter in his home county even though his name was still on the ballot.
"It's kind of neat to still be on the ballot, but we kind of wish we were still active in the campaign," Paul told reporters in Bowling Green as hundreds of Republicans swirled around him making their way to the ballot box.
They included Barbara Eljizi, 68, who was a court reporter for the Marines in the 1960s. Eljizi said she voted for Trump because he shares her attitude.
"(With Trump) as president, the world would be afraid of us. They're not afraid of us now," she said.
It was a disappointing showing for Rubio, who finished a distant third despite having the endorsements of many of the state's Republican legislative leaders who had hoped voters would rally around the Florida Senator to stop Trump's surge. But the results show Kentuckians by far prefer the two contrarians in the race.
Turnout was low, but more people voted than the last Republican presidential primary in 2012. That was a small victory for party officials. Many had fretted turnout could have been dreadful with a caucus that had little advertising in the weeks leading up to the vote.
This is Kentucky's first presidential caucus since 1984. Back then, the caucus was so poorly received party leaders reverted back to the traditional primary election in 1988. This year, thing seemed to run smoothly at the Knicely Conference Center on the campus of Western Kentucky University, where the line to vote stretched the length of the building and out into the parking lot. Similar lines were reported across the state, including at Seneca High School, where Kentucky's Republican governor voted just after the caucus opened.
"Have you ever seen this kind of enthusiasm for a primary in the state of Kentucky?" Gov. Matt Bevin said. "We never have."
Trump voters were enthusiastic, with 53-year-old Christine Brown saying she voted for Trump because he both says things other politicians are afraid to say and wants to "stop the Muslims." But others turned out with equal fervor to vote against Trump, including 46-year-old Tucker Oldham, who said he has been horrified by Trump's vulgar talk and vague campaign promises. He described having to choose between Trump and Hillary Clinton in the general election as "an absolute nightmare."
"I'll vote for my cat Sally as a write-in," he said.
Schreiner reported from Buckner and Florence, Kentucky. Reporter Claire Galofaro contributed from Louisville.