Indiana getting big dose of Trump

Republican presidential campaign planning to hit state’s small towns

Supporters wait for the start of a rally for Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump at Grand Park in Westfield, Ind, Tuesday, July 12, 2016. Mike Wolanin | The Republic
Supporters wait for the start of a rally for Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump at Grand Park in Westfield, Ind, Tuesday, July 12, 2016. Mike Wolanin | The Republic

Donald Trump’s campaign picked the richest Republican city in Indiana — Carmel — to open its only field office in the state.

But a big splash from opening a headquarters in the Indianapolis suburbs doesn’t mean the campaign is overlooking rural Indiana.

It’s set to get a piece of the Trump treatment, too.

In a throwback to old-style political campaigns, leaders of the Trumpian movement plan to travel to small towns to woo supporters and shower them with yard signs and other Trump-for-president paraphernalia.

They’re calling it the “Early for Trump Tour.”

The rural swing will be led by Rex Early, 82, whose glory days as state GOP boss occurred during the Ronald Reagan years.

The name also plays on a pledge by Trump’s running mate, Gov. Mike Pence, to make Indiana the first state in the union to declare Trump the victor over Democrat Hillary Clinton on election night Nov. 8.

“We’re going to be on Hillary like a fat boy on a muffin,” Early trumpeted last week.

For Trump’s supporters, a grassroots campaign and its trappings cannot come fast enough. Republican county chairmen in communities where Trump is likely to do well — rural areas and places with older, white, blue-collar workers — are clamoring for those Trump-Pence signs.

Howard County GOP chairman Craig Dunn is among them. A vocal Trump opponent until the New York developer locked down the party’s nomination in July, Dunn bought 500 Trump-Pence yard signs last week from the state party. They were quickly snapped up.

More are on the way.

Indiana Trump spokesman Tony Samuel said a big boxful of signs ordered for the grand opening of the Carmel office will be quickly depleted. But he’s ordered thousands more to hand out (for free) during his and Early’s tour, scheduled to begin around Labor Day.

The “Early for Trump” tour is Early’s idea, inspired by a congressional campaign he engineered in 1992 for then-challenger Steve Buyer.

To knock off three-term Democratic incumbent Jim Joontz, the upstart Buyer and his staff spread out across a mostly rural district to chat up voters in diners and coffee shops.

“That still resonates with voters in Indiana,” Samuel said. “There’s still a place for retail politics here.”

Whether it’s necessary for Trump in what’s supposed to be a reliably red state is up for debate.

Trump’s national campaign organization has been unconventional. At the outset of the general election, in June, he had a staff of about 70 paid employees, to Clinton’s reported 700-plus.

But they’ve gotten the job done. On the night Trump handily won Indiana’s Republican primary, in May, his last opponent left standing, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, dropped out of the race.

Ball State University political science professor Joe Losco, head of the Bowen Center for Public Affairs, has been watching from the sidelines as the state effort unfolds.

He noted that GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney, who handily won Indiana in 2012, never opened a field office in the state, preferring instead to spend precious campaign money in swing states.

John McCain, meanwhile, launched a field operation in Indiana late in the 2008 campaign but only after seeing the surprising rise of Barack Obama, who went on to win the state.

“The fact that Trump has opened a field office here might indicate that he’s taking a threat from Clinton seriously,” Losco said. “At the least, she’s forcing him to spend money in the state.”

The Trump folks are dismissive of that notion — as dismissive as they are of a Clinton office that opened here last month, as internal Democratic polling signaled her closing in on Trump in Indiana.

“We’re not concerned there is a challenge here,” said Samuel, noting a more recent public poll, from Monmouth University, that contradicted the Clinton numbers with Trump handily ahead.

“We just want there to be absolutely no doubt when Hillary says, ‘Hey, let’s look at Indiana,” he said. “We’re working to remove any idea that there’s a chance for her in Indiana.”

Maureen Hayden is statehouse bureau chief for  CNHI newspapers.