Pence support runs deep in rural areas of Indiana

INDIANAPOLIS — Any day now, Gov. Mike Pence will announce that he’s seeking a second term or, wildly unlikely, bowing out of the 2016 race.

If he’s unsure of his support, he need only look to the rural, Republican red Clay County.

There, Pence met cheers from a packed audience at the annual Clay County GOP Lincoln Day fundraising dinner April 16. It was just two short weeks after he signed a bill meant to mollify critics of the state’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

Pence had suffered a bruising — delivered by some in his own party — amid national controversy over the law. What Pence described as an effort to protect the faithful from government intrusion was derided by critics as license to discriminate against gays and lesbians.

Amid the fallout, a handful of GOP county organizations quietly canceled or postponed Lincoln Day events featuring Pence as a speaker. Two publicly cited the controversy over the religious freedom act.

Not so Clay County.

“We sold out. We actually had to turn people away the day of the event,” County Republican Chairwoman Jodi Lohrman said.

Clay County’s Republicans didn’t understand why there was such a fuss — or why leaders of some of the state’s top corporations put the squeeze on the governor and lawmakers to “fix” the act.

So, too, are many Republicans around the state.

Also in April, the independent, nonpartisan Howey Politics Indiana poll showed Pence’s popularity suffered a major plunge following the RFRA controversy.

Overall, Republican men were more loyal to Pence than Republican women. But he still fared well among both groups, with an 84 percent approval rating among Republican men and 70 percent among Republican women.

Lohrman and a fellow Republican, state Rep. Alan Morrison (Terre Haute), whose district includes Clay County, say they know why.

In places like Clay County, they said, Republicans appreciate that Pence doesn’t shy from talking about faith, family and a firm belief that hard work — and not government handouts — are what it takes to succeed.

Lohrman and Morrison are political newcomers, but their histories reflect Pence’s core supporters.

Lohrman was a stay-at-home mom who was home-schooling her children when she got involved in the 2010 elections. She organized meet-and-greet coffees for candidates at her home, inviting like-minded conservative Christian friends who worry about government intrusion into education.

She soon recruited Morrison, who works for the engineering college Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology, to run for the Legislature.

They met when he asked for a yard sign in support of a conservative Republican candidate. Chatting on the sidewalk outside his home, she talked him into running in what was a traditionally Democratic district.

Both said they find Pence, whose roots are in rural Indiana, personally and politically appealing.

“It means something to people in rural Indiana to know the governor is willing to spend an evening with them,” Morrison said of the Clay County dinner. “He’s not just there to talk. He’s there to listen to them, too.”

Lohrman concurs. She can’t imagine Clay County Republicans telling the governor he wouldn’t be welcome.

Asked what she wants to see Pence do to win re-election, if and when he launches his campaign, she said the question may be the wrong one to ask.

Better, she said, is to ask what she can do to help him.

Maureen Hayden is statehouse bureau chief for CNHI newspapers. Send comments to awoods@tribtown.com.