Indiana is fertile territory for Ted Cruz. | Getty
INDIANAPOLIS — Ted Cruz appealed Thursday to social conservatives in Indiana, telling them their state could be the Stop Trump movement’s best chance to deny the GOP front-runner an outright win.
“Indiana’s voice, Indiana’s megaphone to the country will decide what path this party goes down, what path this country goes down,” Cruz said at the state GOP’s annual dinner here.
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Indiana is fertile territory for Cruz and his effort to deny Donald Trump the 1,237 delegates needed to clinch the nomination outright. Like Wisconsin, the site of Cruz’s last great stand against Trump, it’s Midwestern, the state’s political class is nearly united in their dislike for Trump, it has a primary day to itself, and it’s filled with the type of socially conservative voter the Texan counts as his base.
“We tend to be the type of people who aren’t worried about how fancy the vehicles people drive are or how expensive your clothes are. What we care about is: Who is this person?,” said Daniel Elliot, the GOP chair in Morgan County and a Cruz supporter.
Elliot owns the building in Martinsville where the Cruz campaign has set up a field office. While waiting for Heidi Cruz to visit volunteers there on Wednesday, a campaign staffer updated a whiteboard in the office, a former duckpin bowling alley on the second floor of a building downtown: volunteers had made 4,171 calls out of their 5,000-call goal.
“The Trump campaign is putting out signs,” Elliot said. “That’s nice. The Cruz campaign has been going door-to-door, they’ve been recruiting people to be interns, they’ve been phone banking. Signs don’t win elections. People talking to people wins elections.”
And after sitting out the New York primary contest, anti-Trump groups are ready to play in Indiana too. The Club for Growth is putting $1.5 million behind an ad declaring: “To stop Trump, Vote Cruz.”
“There is now no state more important than Indiana for electing Cruz and keeping Trump from reaching 1,237,” said Club for Growth President David McIntosh, a former congressman from the state.
Cruz entered Indiana with a message that sounds familiar to conservatives here — one centered on religious liberty and a traditional approach on marriage and gender issues.
On Wednesday, he relentlessly attacked Trump for opposing an effort in North Carolina to force transgender people to use their biological gender’s restroom and bar localities from implementing anti-LGBT discrimination laws.
“Donald Trump is no different from politically correct leftist elites,” he said in a statement after Trump expressed opposition to the law. “Today, he joined them in calling for grown men to be allowed to use little girls’ public restrooms.”
Cruz didn’t mention the fight during his speech, but he has already released ads on the topic and Heidi Cruz took time at the Martinsville event to say her husband “knows our country was founded on religious freedom for all people.”
“This is a person who is a true believer,” she said. “He was raised learning the Constitution and the Bible at the dinner table.”
But few are better equipped to warn Cruz of the political dangers of pushing religious freedom legislation than the state’s governor, Mike Pence. His approval ratings dropped from 62 percent to just 45 percent after signing the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which religious conservatives praised as necessary to defend their First Amendment rights and critics derided as discriminatory and harmful to the state’s economy.
The law led to some of the same pushback as North Carolina is facing now: cancelled convention bookings, boycotts from liberal cities and states and relentless attacks from Democrats, including the gubernatorial campaign of John Gregg, who Pence narrowly beat in 2012. (Pence eventually signed legislation repealing RFRA.)
Pence hasn’t endorsed Cruz but he lavished praise on the senator during his dinner speech. (Pence met with Trump on Wednesday, and has said he would also meet with Ohio Gov. John Kasich.)
Outside the dinner, protesters waved signs criticizing Pence for the law and saying he discriminated against LGBT people.
“They think they can exploit some tough choices and tough moments we all went through together,” Pence said in his speech, alluding to the fight over RFRA without explicitly mentioning it, and adding later: “The truth is I can take a punch. I fight for what I believe in.”