FRANKFORT — It wasn't unanimous, but Kentucky Republicans voted Saturday to hold a presidential preference caucus next year, helping U.S. Sen. Rand Paul get around a state law prohibiting a candidate from appearing on the same ballot twice.
But the approval of a caucus is conditional on whether Paul has transferred $250,000 to an account controlled by the Republican Party of Kentucky before Sept. 18. If the money is not there, the party will automatically revert to a primary.
In a closed-door session before the caucus was openly debated, Paul asked his fellow committee members to trust that he would fully fund the caucus, as he has repeatedly pledged to do.
But enough committee members were still skeptical that a plan was hatched that requires Paul to transfer money by a set date or the party reverts to a primary. Beyond that $250,000, there are no written guarantees that Paul will cover the rest.
Committee members were skittish going into Saturday's meeting after Paul had told them in a letter that he had already transferred the sum, only to apologize later when the Herald-Leader reported that the money had not been transferred.
Paul said after the event, in brief remarks to reporters, that it was "a great day."
"As you know, winning a two-thirds vote is not easy, but we exceeded two-thirds," Paul said. "And we had a really, I think, great discussion."
While there are almost 350 members of the state central committee, only 147 votes were cast. Paul's caucus won with 111 votes, even though only 98 were needed.
Paul said the day's debate was "almost a little bit like being on a jury."
"It goes back and forth and back and forth, and ultimately I think people got to the point where they were very comfortable with the idea," Paul said.
When asked if he will wait until Sept. 18 to transfer the $250,000, Paul said "we'll transfer it when it's ready."
Paul and his allies were breathing sighs of relief after Saturday's vote, having tried and failed to prevent the vote from being conducted by secret ballot.
Had the caucus failed, Paul was preparing to run for president in 49 states and run for re-election to his Senate seat in Kentucky.
Before the meeting began Saturday, Paul spoke to about 50 supporters who had gathered outside the Capital Plaza hotel in Frankfort to show their support for him and a caucus.
Before entering the hotel, Paul rallied his troops, telling them that he believes the Kentucky state law that prohibits him from running for both offices at once is unconstitutional.
"As we move forward, no matter what happens today, we'll be running for the presidency and we'll be running for re-election to the U.S. Senate, and I appreciate all of your support," Paul said.
But given a summer of struggles, including flagging polling and fundraising numbers and the federal indictments of two of his top allies, Paul could not afford the public relations crisis a vote against the caucus would have caused.
With a number of committee members on the fence as the day wore on, Terry Carmack, U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's state director, rose to speak in favor of a caucus, reminding committee members that McConnell has endorsed both a caucus and Paul's presidential bid, "especially now that we have a funding mechanism in place."
Carmack was followed by other Republicans who stood to speak in favor of the caucus, with only one person rising to speak against it.
State Senate Majority Leader Damon Thayer, R-Georgetown, encouraged the committee to not give "up the good for the sake of the perfect."
"I know many of us had hoped that the $250,000 would have been deposited into an RPK account by today as indicated in the letter earlier this week," Thayer said. "That's not the case, but now we have an amendment that says it will be by date certain, otherwise we revert to a primary. It's not perfect, but it's still good."
Paul continued to make the case throughout the day that approving a caucus was good news for Kentucky, not just for him.
"It is about something above and beyond one person. It really is about trying to grow the party," Paul said. "And I'm thoroughly convinced that were I not in this race that this is just good for the Republican Party."
Now county chairmen and Republican officials will begin the hard work of organizing, staffing and publicizing next year's caucus, which will be held Saturday, March 5.
Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, a Democrat and the state's chief election official, criticized the decision by Republicans to move to a caucus format.
"It is unfortunate that today a few insiders were able to disenfranchise over 1.2 million Republican voters," Grimes said in a statement. "One candidate should not be able to buy an election. Democracy demands that all eligible Kentuckians be a part of the election process. That didn't happen today and won't happen with a caucus."