Crowds and chaos rattled Missouri’s GOP caucuses on Saturday, threatening to put further scrutiny on a process that was already a national anomaly.
In St. Charles County, which was to have been the biggest single prize of the day, the caucus was shut down before delegates were chosen after a boisterous crowd objected to how the meeting was being run, including an attempted ban on videotaping. Two supporters of presidential hopeful Ron Paul were arrested.
At other caucuses, participants gathered outdoors as the appointed locations turned out to be too small to accommodate crowds or waited for hours as organizers worked through procedural questions.
Even before the day’s events took a rancorous turn, state Republican officials said the winner of the caucus would not be officially known until next month. But with the confusion surrounding St. Charles, and many more delegates available in a pair of caucuses next weekend, the primary picture for Missouri may have only become murkier Saturday.
“It was a joke. It was a complete joke,” said David Nelson of St. Peters, who participated in the St. Charles County caucus.
The state party has not used a caucus to select its choice for presidential preference in 16 years — and the rust showed.
Several caucuses did not start on time as higher than expected turnouts packed the libraries, schools and grocery stores where the events were held.
In Jefferson County, where the caucus started about 25 minutes late so everyone could be registered, Clarence Mason brought a briefcase full of food.
“Any place working with Robert’s Rules of Order, you bring food,” said Mason, 62, of De Soto. “I like to call them Robert’s Rules of Disorder.”
In Ballwin, participants were shut out of an appearance by candidate Rick Santorum because the City Council chambers had reached its 118-person capacity.
The caucus was moved outside the building to accommodate the crowd.
Participants in Saturday’s caucuses weren’t actually selecting their choice for presidential nominee. They were selecting delegates who will appear at two larger meetings in April and June, who will in turn select delegates to the national convention in Tampa.
“Clear as mud, right?” said Chris Howard, who helped organize the outdoor caucus in Ballwin.
Nowhere in the state did the process veer more off course than in St. Charles County, a key prize for the Romney, Paul and Santorum campaigns.
Because St. Louis County’s caucuses were divided into 28 township meetings, St. Charles County was slated to assign more delegates than any other single location on Saturday. Jackson County, which includes Kansas City, has more delegates, but, like St. Louis city, asked to hold its caucuses on March 24, so as to avoid a conflict with St. Patrick’s Day.
The caucus in St. Charles County, which was held at Francis Howell North High School in St. Peters, was adjourned after police said they were going to ‘shut us down,” according to Matt Ehlen, the Republican activist who was named chairman of the meeting. Police said 2,500 people showed up, although organizers put the number at fewer than 1,000.
“For the safety and well-being of the attendees at the caucus, we had to adjourn the meeting,” Ehlen said.
However, several individuals at the caucus said much of the consternation revolved around Ehlen himself. Ehlen became chairman after a voice vote, but the head of the county GOP organization failed to recognize any other candidate.
“All of sudden he’s the chairman and the place goes nuts,” said Tim Finch, a Paul supporter from Dardenne Prairie. “This is not how it’s supposed to work.”
Some of Paul’s supporters also were irked by an announced ban on video recording, with organizers asking police to help enforce it.
When the objections reached a fever pitch, the meeting was shut down without any delegates being awarded.
“We started speaking about the Constitution. Where’s our rights? Where are our votes? This is fascism,” said Jim Evans, another Paul supporter.
Buddy Hardin, a Romney leader and longtime behind-the-scenes force in GOP politics in St. Charles County, alleged that Santorum supporters and caucus organizers sought to close the meeting after they realized that Paul and Romney backers had formed an alliance to share the county’s delegates.
“Once they realized they didn’t have a slate and they wouldn’t get any delegates, they tanked it,” Hardin alleged. He said the shutdown was carried out “to avoid a Santorum embarrassment and loss.”
Karen Fesler, state director for the Santorum campaign, denied that. “We didn’t give any instructions to shut it down,” she said.
Eugene Dokes, the county GOP committee chairman who said he is uncommitted, said organizers had been trying to select a slate of delegates that reflected the relative strength of all three candidates.
One caucus participant accused Paul and Romney supporters of “colluding” to make it impossible to conduct the meeting. Adrian Boyd, an undecided Republican from St. Peters, said both groups were so loud, they drowned out the public address system.
Brent Stafford of O’Fallon, a county GOP committee member and a leader in Paul’s county campaign, and Kenneth Suitter of St. Charles County were charged with trespassing, a municipal ordinance violation, and released.
Now the pressing question for the state GOP is what will happen to St. Charles County’s rich supply of delegates — enough to make the difference in a close race. Party brass began immediately deliberating their next step, which could include holding a new caucus or breaking up the caucus into a series of smaller meetings, as in St. Louis County.
“Today’s events in St. Charles were unfortunate, and the meeting was adjourned to protect the safety of all participants,” state party Chairman David Cole said in a statement. “Moving forward, the State Party plans to reach out to all parties involved. We will come to an agreement to ensure that St. Charles County is fully represented throughout the nominating process.”
Since 1996, Missouri voters in both parties have used a traditional primary election. But after 2008, national Republican leaders passed a measure aimed at discouraging all but a handful of states from holding a primary election before March 6, Super Tuesday.
Those who flouted party rules risked losing convention delegates, the party warned.
In an attempt to comply, Missouri’s GOP-controlled state Legislature last year approved a bill pushing back the date of the Feb. 7 primary. But that bill was vetoed by Gov. Jay Nixon, a Democrat. When the effort to push back the election date died again in a special session, the state’s Republican Party responded by declaring the primary vote nonbinding and tying the nominating process to the local caucuses.
Every other state that has held caucuses this year to select its preference for a presidential nominee has had some type of reporting mechanism to give the public a grasp of who prevailed, even if it’s just an informal straw poll.
But in Missouri, delegates aren’t required to reveal their allegiances until congressional district meetings on April 21, where the party will elect representatives to the national convention. Another batch of delegates to the convention will be selected at a statewide meeting June 2 in Springfield, Mo.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, whose strategy had been to focus on a handful of southern states, did not compete in Missouri.
All three of his rivals still in the race visited Missouri last week.
Romney was in Kirkwood on Tuesday, but, despite ending his day across the river in Collinsville, did not appear in Missouri on Saturday. Romney started his day in Puerto Rico, which holds its primary today.
“He is putting a big emphasis on Puerto Rico,” Talent said.
Paul, who is focusing on caucus states in an attempt to accumulate delegates, also may pick up some momentum in Missouri. Paul’s supporters overwhelmed the caucus in Boone County, which was held at Kemper Arena in Columbia.
There were signs throughout the state that Paul and Romney supporters forged an alliance, to keep Santorum from gaining speed.
But the race in Missouri may still be Santorum’s to lose. The former Pennsylvania senator, who scored the most votes in a nonbinding contest last month, barnstormed St. Louis County on Saturday, with scheduled stops in Wildwood, Ballwin, Hazelwood and Town and Country.