If Ted Cruz is to win his make-or-break primary here, he’ll have to do it without an ally he’s had in major victories over Donald Trump before: Conservative talk radio.
The resistance to Trump among right-wing talkers was one of the most powerful tools in Cruz’s arsenal in his win in Indiana’s northern Midwestern neighbor, Wisconsin, earlier this month.
But in the Hoosier State, talk radio, and the people on it, just aren’t as interested in stopping Trump.
“The audience is pretty damn smart, and they’re not coming to me to tell them what to do,” said Tony Katz, a conservative talker who hosts WIBC’s morning show and has interviewed Cruz several times in recent days.
In Wisconsin, supportive radio hosts like Charlie Sykes, Vicki McKenna, Jay Weber, Jeff Wagner and Mark Belling played a crucial role in fomenting the anti-Trump movement’s momentum and bolstering Cruz.
When Trump called into Sykes’ show days before Wisconsin’s primary, Sykes began the contentious interview: “Before you called into my show, did you know that I’m a hashtag-NeverTrump guy?”
Now, after badly losing six East Coast primaries, Cruz is trying to resurrect his momentum in Indiana. The state’s governor, Mike Pence, endorsed Cruz on one of its most influential conservative talk radio programs — just as Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker had done on Sykes’ show in the Badger State.
However, Pence’s tone was no match for Walker’s criticism of Trump. “I want to say,” Pence began, “I like and respect all three of the Republican candidates in the field.”
The tepid endorsement from Pence — who began his career as a conservative talk radio host in Indiana, styled as “Rush Limbaugh on decaf” — reflected a dramatic culture difference on the airwaves, and in a state where an anti-Trump movement hasn’t taken shape.
“Never mind the radio hosts: There isn’t a large never-Trump movement here,” Katz said. “There are people who don’t like Trump, but never Trump? No.”
Pat Miller, the afternoon host for WOWO Radio in Fort Wayne, is broadcast in the state’s most conservative and Evangelical region. He supports Cruz — but doesn’t bash Trump.
“We’re not on the anti-Trump train,” Miller said. “I don’t think that people really sense that the best way to move forward politically is to be anti. I think they feel the best way to do it is to be pro-whatever you’re going for. … I don’t need to be against Trump.”
It’s not that Indiana has never had an influential conservative talk radio host.
In the mid-1990s, one whose influence quickly grew on the biggest news radio station in the state, WIBC, was Pence.
But Pence’s real ambition was politics. When he left the airwaves to campaign for Congress in 1999, he was replaced by Greg Garrison — known for the successful 1992 prosecution of Mike Tyson on rape charges. Garrison, who still has the gig, has always been less overtly political than Pence. He’s conservative, but tends to focus on law-and-order issues.
WIBC’s current lineup also includes Abdul-Hakim Shabazz, a Pence friend who’s ubiquitous at Indiana political events. But his personal politics are much more libertarian.
In the early 1990s, the station employed the right-wing host Stan Solomon, who attracted a major following. But he also courted controversy with homophobic and anti-Semitic comments — sending advertisers fleeing and leaving station managers hesitant to launch similar programs.
“He did not leave the whole idea of conservative talk radio in the best odor here,” said John Krull, a long-time Indianapolis political journalist who now helms Franklin College’s journalism department and hosts a non-partisan radio show on WFYI Indianapolis.
“We have not had the long-lasting, really political talk radio hosts here on the conservative side that a lot of other markets have had,” Krull said. “The ones who have made an impact made that impact over a short period of time, and the ones who have been on the air for a long time have not been as rabidly partisan as they are in other cities.”
Jeff Smulyan, the CEO of WIBC parent company Emmis Communications, said he thinks “the aberration was really Wisconsin” because talk radio hosts there were organized in their Trump resistance.
He said there’s less appetite for unbending conservatives on the airwaves in recent years, too — which is why he dropped the titan of right-wing radio in 2015.
“People always say, why’d you cancel Rush Limbaugh?” Smulyan said. “Very simple: Because Rush Limbaugh’s act is wearing a little thin. It’s very old, very white. Everything gets canceled in our business for the same reason: Lack of saleable ratings.”
There’s also the timing: Ahead of the Wisconsin primary, the GOP race was still up for grabs. After dominating in New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Connecticut, Delaware and Rhode Island since then, Trump now looks much more inevitable.
“Even Mike Pence, who would be sort of a natural Cruz guy,” Smulyan said, “hedged his bets a lot today.”