Rural Republicans fractured as Indiana’s primary approaches


INDIANAPOLIS – Straw polls aren’t perfect predictors of presidential elections, but one taken the other night at a ham dinner for rural Republicans may offer some insight.

Of the three GOP candidates — Sen. Ted Cruz, Ohio Gov. John Kasich, and businessman Donald Trump — no one won outright.

Votes cast by less-than-enthusiastic applause by about 100 patrons of the Lincoln Day Dinner in Blackford County sounded evenly split.

That didn’t surprise former county GOP Chairman Andy Dudleston. He’s a Kasich supporter who sees the Ohio governor as the most presidential of the lot.

But given how well Dudleston knows his county from his time helping turn it from true-blue Democrat to reliably-red Republican, he’s not forecasting a winner in the May 3 primary.

“I haven’t got a clue,” he said.

Blackford County, on the surface, seems like rich territory for the socially conservative Cruz, who laces speeches with references to his faith.

On the edge of this small county and its mostly farming community sits Taylor University, an evangelical Christian college. It’s just down the highway from church-sponsored Indiana Wesleyan University, which dispatched a contingent of College Republicans to attend last week’s GOP dinner.

In the state Senate, it’s represented by Travis Holdman, a conservative Christian who authored the controversial new law banning abortions based on fetal gender, race or disability.

But there was plenty of skepticism of Cruz at the dinner, held in the dining room of an Assemblies of God retreat center and opened with a prayer from a pastor who’s also a Republican poll worker.

Among those unsure of the Texas senator was Kathy Bantz, mayor of Montpelier, population 1,763.

Her husband is a retired union autoworker and part-time preacher at a small, country church. He’s also a Trump supporter, won over by the celebrity mogul’s tough talk and business acumen.

Now, Bantz is thinking about voting for him, too, in large part because she’s angry with what he sees as the GOP establishment’s efforts to stop Trump from winning the nomination.

Bantz said she doesn’t like Trump’s foul mouth, and she knows the casino-owning, thrice-married billionaire doesn’t have Cruz’s familiarity with the Bible.

“Like my husband says, ‘I want somebody who can run the country, not teach my Sunday school class,’” she said.

Retired farmer Norman Light agreed. He was thinking about voting for Cruz, too.

Then he read about how opaque rules could allow delegates to the GOP’s national convention in July to switch loyalties if Trump doesn’t win the nomination outright.

Now, he’s a Trump man. “It’s not right what they’ve done to him,” he said. “That’s why I turned.”

State Rep. Kevin Mahan, a former county sheriff who co-hosted the dinner and auctioned off a freshly minted Indiana bicentennial coin to raise money for the College Republicans, said Light’s sentiment doesn’t surprise him.

“Americans are mad,” he said. “But people don’t know who to be mad at.”

Jack Beckley, the party chairman in Blackford County, sees the same thing.

He thinks the presidential primary vote tally in his county will be close, but he predicts Trump may edge out the others by a few percentage points.

“People here seem to have a feeling for Trump,” he said. “They like that give-’em-hell attitude.”

The dinner’s keynote speaker, Indiana Secretary of State Connie Lawson, did her best to convince the split crowd to focus on common ground — beating Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton.

“Whoever wins is going to have to take it to Hillary,” she said.

That message seemed to resonate with Jack Collingsworth, president of the College Republicans at Indiana Wesleyan. He recently took on the role of Donald Trump at a mock debate on campus, but that was no endorsement, he said.

“College campuses will be an important battleground this year,” he said. “We think that’s exciting.”

Maureen Hayden is statehouse bureau chief for CNHI newspapers.

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