A lawyer for Mike Huckabee met Monday with state Republican Party officials in an effort to force a recount of Saturday’s caucuses, which the Huckabee campaign called flawed.
But the latest vote totals may kill whatever fading hopes remain among the state’s Huckabee loyalists. They show Sen. John McCain extending his lead.
With 87 percent of the votes counted Saturday night, the party announced that McCain was the likely winner. They later congratulated Huckabee for his second-place finish.
There was one problem: Huckabee trailed McCain by a mere 1.8 percentage points, and his supporters rejected the idea that a winner could be declared with such tight margins.
Huckabee went on national television to decry the state party’s actions and, as votes were still being counted Monday, sent a lawyer to the scene, according to Alice Stewart, press secretary for the former Arkansas governor’s campaign.
“We want to make sure that every last vote is counted and done fairly,” Stewart said.
The state party says it did nothing wrong.
“We didn’t stop counting on Saturday – there was nothing left to do,” said Patrick Bell, a spokesman for the party. Bell said results stopped coming in, so they called it quits for the night.
Huckabee adviser Jim Pinkerton told The Associated Press he wants state party Chairman Luke Esser to apologize and “acknowledge that he’s done great harm to the Huckabee campaign and the Ron Paul campaign.”
But Esser, in a conference call late Monday night, said the latest totals available, with 96 percent of the votes counted, showed McCain gaining ground on Huckabee. McCain had 25.6 percent to Huckabee’s 23.3, with Ron Paul third at 21.4. Other candidates or uncommitted delegates accounted for the remainder.
Esser said he communicated the latest results to both the McCain and Huckabee campaigns and the Huckabee forces did not indicate they were considering legal action to contest the results.
People have to realize, Esser said, “that we’re just a conduit” for the caucus participants.
A vote-by-vote recount, as suggested by Pinkerton, would be impossible because of the way caucuses are done, according to Josh Kahn, who has managed campaigns and previously worked for the Republican Party. When voters sign in, they list a presidential preference. But their votes can change, and that’s not reflected by the sign-in sheets.
Another issue is how delegates are elected at Republican caucuses. In many other states, precinct delegates for each candidate correspond with the amount of voters in the precinct who support a given candidate.
In other words, if 10 people in a precinct vote for McCain and five vote for Huckabee, each candidate would get a corresponding percent of delegates.
Not so for Republicans in Washington. Here, voters discuss issues and candidates, and then, without necessarily taking a vote to assess how many voters support each candidate, potential delegates are nominated. Voters in each precinct elect delegates, but the election is not necessarily based on which candidate they support, Bell said.
That essentially means there’s no way of knowing who your delegate will vote for – and only the party knows which candidate they preferred when they signed in.
Esser said all a recount would entail would be calling the county chairs and asking them to verify the numbers they’ve already reported.
In Saturday’s caucuses, 18 delegates were at stake. While a “winner” was declared, the state counts mean relatively little at this point. The precinct caucuses are the first step in a long process to elect delegates to the Republican National Convention, and votes can change along the way.
Earlier Monday, McCain’s lead was just 1.6 percentage points, but that changed to 2.3 percentage points with the updated totals Monday night.
Bell said this is the first year the party has issued same-day reports on the results, and they projected a winner because they wanted to let the record turnout know who was ahead by the end of the night.
Bell said the party did the math and made an analysis of the missing precincts before deciding to tentatively call the race.
On top of allegations that the winner was called early, some voters have complained that their votes weren’t counted properly or that their precinct officers didn’t understand the rules.
As of Monday morning, the office had received two complaints of misconduct at caucus locations. Bell said they were checking into both allegations and would look into any further complaints that they received.
Stewart said Huckabee’s office had received multiple calls and e-mails from people who claim they were disenfranchised during the process.
But while Huckabee’s campaign – and some voters – may have complaints about the process, there may be little they can do about it.
Niki Sullivan: 253-597-8603
The Associated Press contributed to this report.