Indianapolis — INDIANAPOLIS – Three hours after polls closed in most of Indiana and with half the vote counted, Democrat challenger Glenda Ritz was leading incumbent Republican Tony Bennett in the unexpectedly tight race for Indiana superintendent of public instruction with nearly half of the votes counted.
At 9 p.m. (Eastern Standard Time), Ritz had 52 percent to Bennett’s 48 percent. If the lead holds up, Ritz – who switched parties to take on Bennett – would be the first Democrat to hold the state superintendent’s office since 1971.
Late last week, the independent Howey/DePauw Indiana Battleground Poll showed the race between Bennett and Ritz was tighter than many had anticipated. Just four percentage points separated Ritz from Bennett’s lead, with about 24 percent of voters polled saying they were still undecided.
While Bennett had nearly a five-to-one campaign cash advantage, Ritz staged an aggressive, grassroots campaign that made the most out of social media and deployed thousands of teachers to get out an anti-Bennett message.
Those teachers sent out about 100,000 post-cards with hand-written messages to family and friends across the state, pleading with them to support Ritz. A group of teachers in heavily Republican Boone County launched a “Republicans for Ritz” site on Facebook, calling on party faithful to split their ticket and vote for the Democrat Ritz.
Typical of the grassroots campaign was the kind of call that Fernando Espinal, 27, got from his fiancee’s mother, a teacher’s assistant at a small-town school in northern Indiana who usually votes Republican.
“She said, ‘Tony Bennett is strangling education. Don’t vote for him,’ ” said Espinal, who spent Election Day at a union hall in Indianapolis calling Democratic voters to remind them to get to the polls.
Sitting near him was Jacob Miller, 18, who’d just voted for the first time. “Everybody I know said they’re supporting Ritz, whether Democrat or Republican,” Miller said.