Organizers overwhelmed by nearly double the anticipated turnout

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KENNEWICK — Heather Duncan, of Benton City, hoped to be elected a delegate at Saturday’s Republican caucuses in Kennewick so she could represent her community at later GOP county and state conventions.

But Duncan and an estimated 1,500 other people who showed up at the Three Rivers Convention Center hoping to participate were told at about 10:30 a.m. — some after standing in line for 90 minutes — that they wouldn’t be allowed in.

“I had planned support for Ron Paul” in the straw poll, Duncan said. “But my bigger issue is I would have been a delegate for my community. There’s a whole piece of the county that has no representation going forward.”

Although about 3,000 people showed up, only about half were allowed into the convention center, where most of the Benton County caucuses took place.

Caucuses in Paterson and Prosser also contributed to the Benton County straw-poll total, and about 1,700 people were able to cast votes from the three different polling sites, according to the results.

Benton County Republican Party members who organized the caucuses said they predicted — and prepared — for 2,000 participants. Their jaws dropped when about 3,000 — more than three times the number who showed up in 2008 — tried to pack into the hallways and spilled outside.

“We were overwhelmed,” said Tony Benegas, who ran the Kennewick caucuses. “It’s tough because it’s all volunteers — nobody gets paid to do this.”

Benegas said it quickly became apparent there weren’t enough volunteers to check everyone in and the rooms they booked were filled to capacity. The party was under pressure to finish by 11:30 a.m. so results could be tabulated and turned over to the state party.

“We did pull the leadership aside and said, ‘What are we going to do?’ ” Benegas said. The Benton County Republican Party decided the only apparent choice was to close the doors and turn the 1,500 people away, he said. “I am extremely sorry we could not accommodate everyone,” he said. “I apologize to those folks who we had to turn away. We fit in as many as we could, but we had more than we could physically fit in the rooms.”

An estimated 900 people participated in the 2008 GOP presidential caucuses.

Franklin County Republican Chairman Curtis Mohr said caucuses in Pasco, Basin City and Connell went smoothly. About 850-900 people attended, with no reports of anyone being turned away. Even though Saturday’s caucuses were just the start of a process toward selecting the state’s delegates for the GOP national convention in August, the straw poll taken along with the caucus is the last indicator of voters’ allegiances before this week’s Super Tuesday contest.

Mitt Romney won the straw poll in Benton and Franklin counties Saturday evening. With 100 percent of precincts reporting, Romney was the favored candidate of 43 percent of Benton County caucus participants and 40 percent of those in Franklin County.

Rick Santorum came in second, with 25 percent of the vote in Benton County and 28.5 percent in Franklin.

Ron Paul found a spot in third place with 18 percent in Benton County and 19.5 percent in Franklin, and Newt Gingrich was in fourth place, with 12 percent in Benton County and 10 percent in Franklin.

Washington will send 43 delegates to the GOP national convention. They won’t be selected until the state convention, which starts May 30 in Tacoma.

Saturday’s caucuses involved the selection of delegates by local precincts to send to the April 7 county conventions.

The delegates who go to the county conventions, in turn, will select delegates to the state convention.

Delegates at that stage aren’t bound to any candidate, and support for a candidate isn’t firmed up until the national delegates are selected.

But for local voters, the caucuses represented the only chance they will have to voice a preference for a presidential candidate, because the state is not having a presidential primary this year. (The state Legislature canceled the primary to save money on election costs.) Ray Swenson, a Richland lawyer, criticized local GOP officials for poor organization and said the results should be invalidated.

“I think it’s illegal,” Swenson shouted to a gathered crowd. “The Republican party leadership is taking away our freedom.”

He said he may sue to invalidate the caucus results.