CLEVELAND – Social conservatives like Emily Gruenhagen and Lyndi Odegard, who make up a significant portion of Minnesota’s delegation to the Republican National Convention, have seen little to indicate Donald Trump is the kind of true believer they wish were leading their party.
Gruenhagen, who helps run an independent insurance business in Glencoe, said on Wednesday that she is ready to take it on faith that Trump is at least a better choice for conservatives than Democrat Hillary Clinton. Odegard, a mother of three from Bemidji with a fourth on the way, is still struggling.
“He’ll say something I don’t like, and I’ll say ‘Absolutely not.’ Then he’s pressured, and he’ll change it,” said Odegard, an alternate delegate. “So which one is it? How do I know what to trust if you’re going to speak out of both sides of your mouth? I don’t know his heart.”
For four decades now, social and religious conservatives have been integral to the Republican Party’s national coalition, pulled into political activism over concerns about legal abortion, same-sex marriage and worries over religious freedom. Trump has sought to mollify that wing of the party most recently by tapping as his running mate Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, a solid social conservative who called out to the constituency in his convention speech on Wednesday night.
“This election will define the Supreme Court for the next 40 years,” Pence said, citing an issue of vital interest to conservatives. “We all better think very, very carefully about what this election means for our Constitution.”
A number of conservatives in the Minnesota delegation felt reassured by the choice of Pence, which they weren’t necessarily expecting.
“I think he brings nuts and bolts to the campaign that Donald Trump might be a little light on,” said Chuck Bradford, a delegate who works as a computer engineer and is also the mayor of Mantorville.
Many Trump supporters in the Republican Party are refreshed by the New York real estate tycoon’s lack of previous political experience. But for social conservatives, that cuts both ways. They are used to hearing promises from party leaders that then go unfulfilled, making it especially hard to take the word of a nonpolitician with no voting record by which to measure his words.
“I believe Mike Pence represents more of the principles that I hold,” said Gruenhagen, who is married to state Rep. Glenn Gruenhagen, an outspoken social conservative at the State Capitol. “Maybe Donald Trump does, too, but there’s no record. This is what’s hard.”
A sizable share of Minnesota’s delegation originally supported the presidential bid of Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who has emerged in recent years as a favorite of social conservatives. Both Gruenhagen and Odegard admitted that they originally sought to participate in the national convention in hopes that Cruz would be able to mount a floor fight for the nomination and displace Trump as the party’s candidate.
That didn’t happen. Cruz spoke to the convention Wednesday night, despite the disdain Trump frequently expressed for him (“Lyin’ Ted”), but he upended the proceedings when at the end of his speech, he refrained from endorsing Trump and urged conventioneers to “vote your conscience.”
That drew boos and angry shouts from Trump supporters throughout the arena. The conservative magazine National Review reported Wednesday that Cruz already has set his sights on the 2020 election.
Before the crowd revolted, Cruz spoke in language tuned to conservatives.
“Freedom means every human life is precious and must be protected,” Cruz said in his speech. “Freedom means Supreme Court justices who don’t dictate policy and instead follow the Constitution.”
For now, Minnesota conservatives are hoping that Trump moves their way in his convention speech on Thursday night. Certainly, he has found some common ground with conservatives: several interviewed believe his heavy emphasis on curbing illegal immigration is how he managed to win over many on the right.
“He’s said things that a lot of people felt like they just weren’t hearing from other leaders in the party,” said Jeff Hommedahl, an alternate delegate from Cannon Falls who works in a machine shop. Hommedahl also said there is a natural appeal for many conservatives in an outsider seemingly devoted to offending the political establishment.
Still, asked if he believes Trump is a conservative at heart, Hommedahl replied: “I do not.” The longtime party activist said he’d vote for Trump in November but reserve his volunteer energy to electing conservative candidates to state and local offices.
When Trump takes the stage at Quicken Loans Arena on Thursday night, Minnesota delegate Laura Dean said she’s hoping he talks about how the Republican Party can fight legalized abortion and reaffirm his vow to appoint strongly conservative judges to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Dean, an obstetrician/gynecologist from Dellwood who is married to GOP state Rep. Matt Dean, is aware that Trump in years past publicly supported legal abortion. He has since changed tack.
“I think people can have sincere changes in position,” Dean said. Originally a supporter of Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, Dean said people from the Trump campaign reached out to her ahead of the convention to calm her concerns about his conservatism.
“I’ve been pretty strongly assured that his support for the life issue is real and sincere,” Dean said. “I believe that.”
Odegard, who recites Bible verses with ease, is not so sure. She said she watched a 20-year-old TV interview with Trump where he said partial-birth abortion, a procedure that conservatives find beneath contempt, should remain legal.
Odegard said she still doubts Trump is a true Christian, citing his checkered marital history and penchant for crude comments. She has been surprised to see prominent leaders of religious conservatives — including Minnesota’s former U.S. Rep Michele Bachmann — signing on with Trump after private meetings with him.
“My question is what did he say to them?” Odegard said. “And why can’t he say it to the rest of the nation? I want that information.”
Will she vote for him come November?
“That’s the big question,” Odegard said. “My answer is I’m still watching.”