Brian Howey: Hoosier GOP at a crossroads
Friday, April 27, 2012 5:35 AM
NASHVILLE, Ind. – Two stories piqued my interest last week. The first was an interview by the Evansville Courier & Press with Indiana Treasurer Richard Mourdock, who again decried "bipartisanship," which he blames for "taking us to the brink of bankruptcy." He has vowed to use his Senate seat, should he win, to wage a war on “liberals.”
As the interview went on, Mourdock was asked about the Development, Relief and Education of Alien Minors Act – the DREAM Act – a lightning rod of discontent with the Tea Party. Mourdock said the DREAM Act might have been received as an act of compassion decades ago, but asked, "If you reward bad behavior, are you going to get more or less of it in the future?”
On the same day, a true rising star of the Republican Party – U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida – was urging Republicans to accept a compromise on the DREAM Act.
“We have these very talented young people in America who find themselves in limbo through no fault of their own,” Rubio said of children who illegally entered the United States with their parents.
In Rubio's worldview, there is the "compassion" element that Mourdock acknowledges, and the political one. “We have to get Hispanic voters to vote for our party,” Rubio said, warning that recent polling “spells doom for us.” Latinos backed President Obama over John McCain 67-31% in 2008 (Gov. Daniels received 37 percent in that election) after President George W. Bush won 44% of their vote in 2004. A recent Pew Research Center poll showed Obama leading Romney 67-27%.
In 2006, three Indiana Republican congressmen - John Hostettler, Chris Chocola and Mike Sodrel - all lost reelection campaigns, mostly from the fallout of the Iraq War. But Hostettler went on a multi-city crusade calling for draconian immigration law, and he was joined in part by Sodrel and Chocola.
The Hoosier Latino population is growing and is not fully engaged politically. There are around 50,000 Latinos in Lake and Marion counties each, according to the 2010 U.S. Census, but fewer than 50% vote.
The Mourdock challenge to U.S. Sen. Dick Lugar has become a soul-searching event for Indiana Republicans, who have long been part of a tug-of-war between the isolationists and the internationalists dating back to the end of World War I. The former was represented by U.S. Sen. William Ezra Jenner, who entered the Senate in 1944 and became an ally of U.S. Sen. Joseph McCarthy.
Sen. Jenner explained in 1954, "We have a well-organized political-action group in this country, determined to destroy our Constitution and establish a one-party state. It operates secretly, silently, continuously to transform our government without suspecting that change is under way. If I seem to be extremist, the reason is that this revolutionary clique cannot be understood, unless we accept the fact that they are extremist."
In Jenner's day, the enemy was communism. Today, it is liberalism and even moderate conservatives.
The isolationist wing of the Indiana GOP gave way with Jenner’s retirement in 1958 and the defeat of U.S. Sen. Homer Capehart to Birch Bayh in 1962 to what I call the "internationalists" personified by Sen. Lugar and Gov. Robert Orr, who opened up the Hoosier doors to Asian businesses.
Lugar has been widely assailed for his past support of the DREAM Act. In 2010, in voting for the act, Lugar explained, "The DREAM Act would provide a select group of high achieving students with a tough but fair pathway to legal residency."
Business leaders see the DREAM Act as assimilating promising Latino students into American culture. The Tea Party and isolationists see it as the classic slippery slope.
During their debate on April 11, Mourdock said he was urged by members of the Republican Central Committee to challenge Lugar. The campaign announced that ten of the 18 members had endorsed him. But after the party reorganization in June 2011, seven of those who had endorsed Mourdock were gone, either to retirement or defeat. Several Mourdock lieutenants lost district races.
“We didn’t believe it should be our role to tell people who to vote for,” said 8th CD Vice Chairman Randy Gentry.
We're seeing a similar changeover with Indiana's two Republican National Committee positions. Versailles City Councilwoman Dee Dee Benkie and Jim Bopp Jr. - both Mourdock supporters - are giving way to Lt. Gov. Becky Skillman and, most likely, 7th CD Chairman John Hammond III, both backing Lugar. The Senate showdown didn't prompt the exits, but with Gov. Daniels and Skillman both ardently backing Lugar, it’s still a shift.
Lugar notes that without bipartisanship the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Act wouldn’t have happened.
"It's a fact of life if you've been a legislator for any stretch of time, a member of Congress must work with the other party to get anything done,” he said, adding that he believes Club for Growth, FreedomWorks and Mourdock are seeking ideological purity.
"They must think this is a very good time to purify the Republican Party, eventually to get rid of all the impure, then there will be two houses of purity in Congress, and maybe the presidency, and then we'll turn it around. If we were to wait for that to occur, it would be a disaster," Lugar said.
On May 8, Hoosier Republicans will be voting on the direction - and the soul - of the GOP.
Find Howey on Twitter @hwypol.