Amish PAC vying for conservative votes
Amid the green pastures of northern Indiana County, nearly 3,000 Amish live their plain and simple lives, rejecting the trappings of modern life, maintaining rigid conservative views on everything from education and religion to child-rearing and taxation.
Despite their strong convictions, few Amish are politically active.
Few even register to vote.
But a former Amishman who supported failed GOP presidential candidate Ben Carson and a professional fundraiser have teamed to change that by launching Amish PAC, a political action committee targeting an unlikely voting bloc: Amish adults in Pennsylvania and Ohio.
It's a daunting task since many Amish shun much of what they refer to as the “English,” or outside world, rejecting cars, indoor electricity and television.
But the time may be right for change, according to PAC co-founder Ben King, 28, who left the Amish faith but remains in Lancaster County where he runs a barn-building business.
King has joined Carson fundraiser Ben Walters to build support for presumptive GOP nominee Donald Trump.
“I know for a fact they're not happy with the policies put in place in the last eight years,” King said. “It's really about who's going to allow the people of America to do what they've been able to do since America (was) founded.”
At stake are the 68,000 Amish in Pennsylvania — 35,000 in Lancaster County alone — and 69,000 in Ohio, although less than half are of voting age and very few are registered.
Those Amish who do register are overwhelmingly male (72 percent) and virtually always Republicans (92 percent).
Walters said he's out to “unlock new conservative votes ... concentrated in the two biggest swing states who could actually make a profound difference on the election” — a reference to the 2000 presidential race between Al Gore and George W. Bush, which was decided by a handful of votes cast in a few Florida voting districts.
“They're not high-propensity voters, but they do have a history, in some cases, (of voting),” Walters said. “It's not in large numbers, but they'll come out.”
King and Walters have raised money — about $15,000 — and enlisted volunteers to spread the word via billboards, ads in Amish newspapers and by word of mouth that a vote for Trump is a vote to sustain conservative views.
Because the Amish don't watch TV and or see the flood of tweets, Facebook posts and other social media messages that have been a staple of this campaign, the cost of getting the word out is fairly low.
‘Keep it conservative'
Noah Byler, a 35-year-old Amishman who owns Byler's Harness and Shoe Shop along Route 954 in West Mahoning, said he usually votes, but many in the community don't, even if they're registered.
“Some, I think, don't believe we should have anything to do with the government, which is true, but we still keep track of it,” Byler said. “The main reason we would (vote) would be to try to keep it conservative.”
King believes history shows the importance of the Amish vote.
In George W. Bush's 2004 campaign, the GOP blanketed Lancaster County, home to the largest concentration of Amish in the nation.
In July of that year, Bush visited the county, bringing his message of Christian values, a message that played well with the Amish.
Knowing the Amish are publicity-shy, Bush met with them at a private business along the way rather than delivering his message at a raucous political rally.
In the end, there was an uptick in Amish voting. While Bush lost Pennsylvania, he lost by a smaller margin than four years earlier — gains experts attribute to the push to enlist rural voters such as the Amish.
In 2004, Amish turnout hit 13 percent in Lancaster County, a high number for followers of a church that emphasizes praying for public officials rather than voting for them, said Donald Kraybill, professor and senior fellow emeritus at the Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies at Elizabethtown College,
But Kraybill doesn't see a repeat of 2004.
“I don't think the rate of participation you see there was sustained,” he said. “Frankly, I don't think (the Amish PAC) is going anywhere.”
He said the 2016 race is a much different election, and the brash, boisterous Trump is a much different candidate.
“(Bush) had a down-on-the-farm kind of style he could use when he needed to. He was perceived by them as a sincere evangelical Christian,” said Kraybill. “They don't see that in Donald Trump.”
Humility is prized by the Amish, “and he doesn't have much of it,” Kraybill said.
One local GOP official said he has not seen Amish interest in this presidential election.
“Getting them to come out and vote is going to be a tough thing to do,” said Dave Dumeyer, chairman of the Lancaster County Republican Party.
He said his party is not targeting the Amish unless they express some interest in the election.
“We would be out in a flash on that (but) that ... hasn't happened yet,” he said.
In keeping with his Amish upbringing, King is restrained with his pitch to vote for Trump. The hard-sell does not play well with the Amish.
“If an opportunity presents itself, I tell them how a Trump administration versus a Clinton administration will affect their culture and their business,” he said.
King said it comes down to who would offer the most individual freedoms.
Some believe it has grown increasingly difficult for the Amish to remain disinterested in government as society changes rapidly around them.
Although some Amish say they're concerned about the nation's future, they will look to a higher power for guidance.
An Amish carpenter in West Mahoning, who asked his name not be used, said voting is not encouraged in his church — and he doesn't plan to vote — even though “there's plenty of motivation to vote” this year.
He's concerned about what a Clinton presidency could mean for mandated health insurance coverage, for example.
He admits Trump “might be the lesser of two evils” but still hopes he defeats Clinton. “We can pray really hard.”
Kari Andren is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 724-850-2856 or firstname.lastname@example.org.