Kansas Republicans who gathered Saturday for their biggest annual convention wondered whether Ted Cruz’s support among tea party conservatives or Marco Rubio’s backing from top politicians can prevent Donald Trump from capturing the state’s GOP presidential caucus.
Rubio emerged as the candidate of the state party’s establishment after Gov. Sam Brownback and U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts endorsed the Florida senator. But Republican activists said Trump, the billionaire New York businessman, and Cruz, a Texas senator, already enjoyed solid support when Rubio picked up his endorsements.
The Kansas GOP’s two-day convention in the Republican-leaning Kansas City suburb of Overland Park, which is in the state’s most populous county, came two weeks before the March 5 presidential caucuses for both parties. Republicans will caucus at more than 100 sites across the state to allocate 40 delegates to the party’s national convention.
The state party is controlled by anti-tax, anti-abortion, anti-gay marriage and pro-gun rights conservatives. Kansas proved itself a right-leaning contrarian in 2008 and 2012, with caucus-goers giving victories to former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum over eventual nominees John McCain and Mitt Romney.
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“Kansas Republicans do not accept moderate and establishment candidates,” said Secretary of State Kris Kobach, a former state party chairman who has not endorsed any presidential candidate.
The state GOP set the caucus so it will occur only four days after Super Tuesday contests in 12 other states, and party officials are prepared for as many as 60,000 people to participate. Every Republican presidential nominee after 1964 has carried the state.
Kansas Democrats will be choosing March 5 between former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, but seven candidates will be on the GOP ballot. Joining Cruz, Rubio and Trump are former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, Ohio Gov. John Kasich and former technology executive Carly Fiorina, even though she has withdrawn from the race.
Only supporters for Rubio, Cruz and Trump had tables at the Kansas GOP’s gathering this weekend, and party activists repeatedly described them as the candidates likely to pick up delegates.
Republicans acknowledged that Trump’s populist messages and brash style are resonating with some GOP voters. Jim Baker, Trump’s state director, said Trump is appealing to a broad cross-section of voters, including both conservative evangelicals and former Romney supporters.
Les Roediger, a Mayetta resident recently laid off from a welding job, helped staff the Trump table at the Republicans’ convention. He recalled handing out coins for 1964 GOP presidential nominee Barry Goldwater as a child and said Trump’s broad vision for a stronger nation appeals to him.
“He wants everything I want,” Roediger said. “He wants the country I had when I was a little kid.”
Rubio supporters cited a variety of reasons Saturday for backing him, including his story as the son of immigrants or his experience with national security issues, but they also touted him as the most electable nationwide of the top three GOP candidates. And U.S. Rep. Mike Pompeo, a Rubio supporter, said electability matters.
“I truly believe he can unite our nation in ways none of the other candidates can,” said Pompeo, who represents the Wichita-area 4th Congressional District.
Rubio also had Santorum’s endorsement, and Santorum was speaking to convention-goers to tout the Florida senator.
But Rubio’s past support for immigration legislation that would have created a pathway to citizenship for immigrants living in the U.S. illegally has alienated some Kansas Republicans. Among them are Bud and Liz Schwindt of Whitewater, northeast of Wichita, who stopped by the Cruz table to sign up for campaign updates. The couple praised Cruz for being uncompromising.
“He’s very honest,” Liz Schwindt said. “He can take a stand by himself.”