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GOP battles could signal trend toward polarized Vanderburgh politics

EVANSVILLE — There is no upside for Cheryl Schultz in commenting on the civil war being waged within the Vanderburgh County Republican Party right now.

After all, Schultz is the local Democratic Party chairman. Whatever she might say could be weaponized by one side or the other of the GOP conflict, ruin her relationship with her current counterparts on the other side, or poison the waters with the new crowd should they defeat the old.

“My hope is that whoever succeeds (GOP Chairman Mike Duckworth) in his role will be prepared to work with the Democrats as has been the custom, with elections, in years past,” Schultz said.

More: The GOP revolution could affect Vanderburgh County, the state for years to come

Shane Ritz is not so diplomatic.

Ritz, the Democratic Party Organization’s communications directorblasted Ken Colbert — one of three Republicans trying to remake the local GOP — as “a completely unhinged bigot and anti-Semite.”

It’s the kind of attack rarely seen in local politics, where the top leaders of both major parties are often filled with people who went to school together, work together and see each other in supermarkets. Some are lawyers or real estate agents with client lists to worry about. Some are employees of local companies with business careers to nurture.

A certain civility prevails that insulates local politicians from the kind of strongly worded attacks often seen on national cable television networks that pander to the impossible types on both the left and the right.

More: Duckworth Speaks: I didn’t target anyone in the GOP

But then, potential Republican kingmaker Colbert is different.

Ritz pointed to Colbert’s highly active Telegram feed, which contains messages that Ritz said are violently, hatefully anti-Semitic.

“Jesus literally told you two thousand years ago that Jews are the problem,” one post reads. The words appear above Colbert’s name and below an artist’s rendering that appears to depict the biblical story of an angry Jesus overturning the money changers’ tables in the Temple in Jerusalem.

Another post on Colbert’s Telegram feed says just above his name:

“Jews started the NAACP in 1909. They created the Civil Rights Act that destroyed black communities. It was written by Theodore Hesburg who is a Jew/Zionist. Jews own every genre of music created by black people but they make more money from it than They also owned 95% of the slaves.”

Local politics could change tone quickly

If it’s going to be like this if Colbert and his supporters take control of the Vanderburgh County GOP, Ritz said, local politics could quickly become as polarizing and nasty as national politics.

“If the Republican Party is taken over by people like Ken Colbert, he’s the kind of person who thinks every Democrat is a pedophile or something,” the Democratic communications director said.

Ritz said he had thought Colbert’s social media would be “conservative rhetoric from the far right, more like something (Republican former President Donald) Trump would say.”

“But this is way beyond anything that even Trump would say,” he said.

More: Major changes would follow turnover in the Vanderburgh GOP

When he recently reviewed the Telegram messages with a Courier & Press reporter, Colbert said he did not recognize them as his.

“I find a lot of things that I post to create discussion,” he said. “I don’t necessarily agree with a lot of things that I put out there, just because I take pictures with people, and I don’t necessarily agree with them. I do a lot of research. All kinds of things.”

The Democratic Party — including local Democrats — are the ones who are too extreme, Colbert charged. Local Republicans would call it out if his faction takes control of the GOP, he said.

“If the opposing candidate is doing things that are antithetical to conservatism, it needs to be exposed,” Colbert said.

The Courier & Press asked Colbert if he agrees with the anti-Semitic posts on his feed.

“I have no idea. Again, I’m not familiar with it at all,” he said. “But you know, it’s interesting, because I put a lot of comments out there, and some people don’t like it. Then they start trolling you and saying you’re harassing them. It’s like, really? I could put things out . there about the existence of God You will have people who say: ‘Well, I am offended because I am an atheist.’

More: Impeached candidates say they are determined to unseat Duckworth as GOP chairman

The Courier & Press bluntly asked Colbert: Is he anti-Semitic?

“No, not at all,” he said. “I embrace everybody. It is what it is. Will I express myself sometimes? Yes, I have the right to do that.”

Rs and Ds have worked together

Democratic Chairman Schultz has worked closely with Republican Vice Chairman Dottie Thomas for years as each tackled the task of finding pollsters to represent the parties in elections. The two women often sit next to each other at Vanderburgh County Election Board meetings and chat during breaks.

Local Republicans and Democrats are even lending each other poll workers, Schultz said.

“If we come down to the crunch before election night — if someone calls and has a medical examiner — we’ll check with each other to see if they have an extra sub because our goal is just to make sure we have enough people for to run the election, she says.

“It’s always nice to know you have someone you can call and say, ‘Oh my God.’ It was especially useful during COVID.”

Workers at polling stations must in any case be completely impartial in their department, Schultz said.

Schultz goes way back with Duckworth, her Republican counterpart.

The two have known each other since, nearly two decades ago, Schultz worked in Human Resources at the Evansville Vanderburgh School Corp. and Duckworth was a member of the EVSC school board.

“We’re all watching what’s going on, and there’s never any allegations of wrongdoing,” Schultz said of the relationship between local Republicans and Democrats. “That should be one of the things that reassures people when they go to vote.”

The voters are the ultimate arbiters

Colbert isn’t the only Republican to help lead a new conservative, pro-Trump majority in the local GOP precinct committee, and he wouldn’t be the only one helping to shape the party’s message.

Cheryl Batteiger-Smith, a former Posey County Republican vice chair and now Vanderburgh County resident, has also been a key organizer.

Batteiger-Smith ran against Republican state Rep. Wendy McNamara as a self-described “independent conservative” in 2022.

“I gave my life to Christ and became a child of God, and He is first in my life,” Batteiger-Smith told 8th District GOP leaders in June before they barred her from seeking office as a Republican until 2030. “I began to have a deep passion for the unborn and became a huge supporter of the Right to Life (anti-abortion) movement, believing that every baby deserves to live and have a chance at life.

Also part of the conservative faction’s leadership team: Michael Daugherty, a former Republican who ran for mayor of Evansville last year as a Libertarian and joined the GOP afterward. Daugherty calls himself a devoted conservative who is nonetheless willing to support more moderate Republican candidates if they win nominations for elected office.

Daugherty is also a vocal critic of Duckworth, saying the GOP chairman has torn the party apart and must be removed if unity is to be restored.

Matthew J. Hankaa political scientist at the University of Southern Indiana, said voters have the most important role to play in determining how much either party’s dysfunction affects local politics.

“I think you can see Republicans following trends where they’re going to nationalize local political races more,” Hanka said. “But I think voters have a responsibility to frame the debate as well, and not be completely dependent on what party machines tell you.”

Republican inertia — the GOP’s dominance in federal, statewide and countywide elections in Vanderburgh County since 2010 — is so strong that infighting is unlikely to hurt its candidates this year the way Democratic infighting in 2011 hurt the party in city elections. Hanka said.

But the seasoned political scientist said the rise of the local GOP’s most ardent conservative faction to take control of the party’s district committee this year could have a strange effect: Trump, who consistently lined up behind local Republican candidates in the 2020 election, could lead some percentage points ahead of them this year.

“It wouldn’t be a surprise,” Hanka said.

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