U.S. Rep. Ross Adair (left) and Allen County Republican Chairman Orvas Beers with WKJG-TV anchor Jack Gray.
U.S. Rep. Ross Adair (left) and Allen County Republican Chairman Orvas Beers with WKJG-TV anchor Jack Gray.

FORT WAYNE – In the late 1960s, when I began in politics as a teenager, Orvas Beers was the king of the Allen County Republican Party. Keith Bulen of Marion County was sort of the Orvas Beers of central Indiana. He represented a more populated area but had to share more of his power. 

Back in the old days of spoils – the gains of patronage, political profits and power – maintaining control of a county political party was easier. The big bosses of the state could gather and make a deal.

Back then, the important things in Indiana (tied to jobs or, say, bank deposits) weren’t left to the risks of primaries. Conventions (more later on the modern version, the caucus nomination system) could be controlled by the “bosses” gathering in smoke-filled rooms to pick their favorites, later ratified by delegates. 

My favorite story is the epic deal when the large counties divided the positions, with Ed Whitcomb of Seymour getting governor, Dick Folz of Evansville getting lieutenant governor, John Snyder of Washington getting treasurer and Trudy Etherton of South Bend getting auditor. Fort Wayne was supposed to get attorney general, but State Sen. Allan Bloom turned it down. Lake County, given the opportunity, chose Ted Sendak. Orvas Beers needed to find a secretary of state candidate.

According to legend, Orvas and his key allies, including city Chairman Allan McMahan, were sitting in his living room debating over the alternatives. Bill Salin was out mowing his lawn and one of them said, “Hey, what about Bill?” 

The story is unfair to Bill Salin. He did become secretary of state and had a successful career in banking, but at that time he was not involved in political activity and organizations. He knew Orvas Beers. 

Orvas had what would normally be called an influential law firm. E. Ross Adair, his law partner, was elected to Congress in 1950 and remains the longest-serving congressman in the history of the Fort Wayne-anchored district. The city attorney, Harry Scott, and the county attorney, George Mallers, were part of his firm. The license bureaus were lucrative cash cows. 

County employees willingly contributed, went to Lincoln Days, and did whatever other task they were asked. They understood that if the party was not strong, their immediate boss might lose their job. That, and failure to willingly participate was tantamount to quitting.

City employees, including police and fire officer appointments, were also part of the system when a party controlled the mayor’s office. Party loyalty, and loyalty to those who controlled the party, were rewarded. 

In 1976, Dan Quayle, a casual friend of mine from the young conservative days of the 60s, contacted me about helping with the marketing and strategy of his 1976 congressional campaign. Quayle had the idea of setting up the Kasten plan, developed by Congressman Bob Kasten of Wisconsin. It was built around the assumption of building, essentially, a separate precinct organization with the purpose of electing one candidate and loyalty to that candidate. For example, a critical point was to win a primary and then, especially when challenging an incumbent, turn out Democrats who were backing that candidate whether or not they supported any other Republicans. 

Dan was more than acceptable to Orvas Beers and the establishment. His Pulliam family credentials were important. The fact that the longest serving congressman in the region’s history (Adair) had lost to Roush in 1970, the president of the Senate (Bloom) had lost in 1972, and Sen. Walt Helmke, whose family had helped lead the Indiana Republican Party for decades, lost in 1974, was another factor. 

By then other factors were changing as well. The spoils system, at least the financial side, was eroding rapidly. The parties were aging. Republicans were brawling in primaries as opposed to being hand-picked in conventions. 

We built a strong grassroots organization that was committed to Quayle, not necessarily to the Republican ticket. It included the emerging pro-life movement and others, many of whom had been Democrats at the local and state level. Marilyn Quayle, who even made me look tactful, was quoted in the media calling the Republican chairmen in our region something like old men no longer relevant to modern politics. 

After Quayle won, he picked an evangelical as his district representative, Dan Coats, who had absolutely no involvement in Republican or any politics at the time (Coats was inspired to get involved by Chuck Colson and prison fellowship).

Over the years I had become close friends with Dick Prickett, who owned the Albion New Era newspaper. For decades he helped lead another powerful arm of the Indiana Republican Party, the Republican Editorial Association (which has never been studied enough given its impact on Indiana politics). He had been Adair’s chief of staff during his long career in Congress.

After Quayle won, and Coats was selected his assistant over other choices preferred by Orvas who had some Republican ties, I ran into Dick by an elevator at the L.S. Ayres at Glenbrook Mall. He was not long for this world. He had tears in his eyes, which I had never seen from him, asking me how the Republican Party was going to survive this new wave. Quayle was fairly dismissive and ignored them. No one even knew Coats. New campaign organizations were taking the volunteers and raising large sums of money. Television influence was rising, which was personality dependent and necessitated record amounts of campaign dollars. Political consultants replaced party bosses as the true political brokers.

When discussing patronage, the decline of party-controlled convention nominations, and “spoils” as a critical key to the decline of the power of Indiana political parties it is important to also note that not all states had the same style political systems as Indiana did, yet political parties in all states are not as powerful as they once were.  
I do not believe that the party is over. At least not the Republican Party. That’s the subject for my next column. There is still some life in the party. It isn’t dying in part because there is a need for party organizations, and there are people working to make sure it lives on.

Souder is a former Republican congressman from Indiana.