FORT WAYNE – It was a chilly Saturday night in early October 1993 when I arrived at the LaGrange Corn School. It is a week-long festival that began in 1906 in downtown LaGrange, an hour north of our home in Fort Wayne. At this point we were beginning the final month of my campaign to unseat popular incumbent congresswoman Jill Long.

The Corn School was beginning to shut down. Steve Mickem, my dedicated county coordinator, had said that I must attend, so here I was at the tail end. As I headed along the dark streets, people would subtly move to the other side of the street to pass by; not because of worry about crime, but given that I didn’t look like a farmer, I could have been a salesman or worse, a politician that they might have to talk to.

I turned and saw a booth that had a few people at it, most of whom quickly melted away. After a half to one hour of more booths at which I caused similar scatterings, and lonely sidewalk jaunts, I gave up and drove the hour home pretty discouraged.

My family background is German – Souder, Getz, Gerber, Stoller, etc. – so I can say this: German farmers and people can be pretty uncommunicative. When someone would actually engage, when I’d say, “Hi, I’m Mark Souder,” they would say, “Yeah, I’ve heard of you.”

But here is the remarkable part of this story: For the next six years or so, after I’d won people would say “I saw you at the Corn School” or “I heard you were at Corn School.”  It is like Richard Ben Cramer wrote in his seminal political book, “What It Takes”: People like politicians who view themselves as one of them, as their servant in office, not a ruler.

Steve Mickem was not your typical county coordinator. When I ran for Congress in 1994, the county chairmen as political bosses were long gone. County chairmen made sure they had a good Lincoln Day Dinner, a booth at county festivals, a parade entry and poll workers. Anything else was a bonus.

County chairmen with no spoils to deal had comparatively little control left over primaries. Instead of inside slating of candidates, it became an assumption that the party elected officials would remain neutral. In other words, the process of building independent political organizations that was most clearly evident in Dan Quayle’s 1976 congressional campaign had now become rather essential since the party was neutered for primary fights.

By 1994, the process toward power in nominations was beginning to move toward organized Republican businessmen who could put in significant amounts of money into a primary race. In my case, that was a problem, because our most important GOP financial leader was Dick Freeland and he backed the slightly favored candidate. But this was still emerging, and the massive self-funders were still on the horizon for the most part.

Mickem owned a vehicle equipment repair shop. His biggest political success was being on the county fair board. Early on, however, we saw his value. Mark Wickersham and I were visiting one of the larger corporations in LaGrange when the plant manager and staff seemed cool toward me, leaning more to my opponent. Then we toured the facility. Mickem kept coming up with this person and that person whose car he’d fixed or been involved with at the fair. As we left, Wickersham pointed out to me that while the top guys may not be for me, we had cleaned up out in the plant, and that there were a whole lot more of them than people in the top offices.

Steve Mickem also made sure I attended Maple Syrup Days in mid-March. This all-you-can-eat pancake event is not designed for people like me who don’t like to bother people; they are sitting down for pancakes and wonderful local syrup, and here comes a politician butting in between them and their food. It was not a typical stop on congressional candidate tours. Once again, I might not have made it completely around, but people knew I was there. (And I probably had maple syrup on my face.)

Mickem also said that I needed to buy a hog at the summer 4-H fair. My campaign, perpetually operating on fumes as we did week-to-week budgets, had some serious concerns about buying a hog as opposed to other advertising. We did, though I obviously didn’t pick it, and then donated it.

Steve’s wife Julie was from Topeka and a lead party activist there. So we worked Topeka. I may be one of few congressional candidates to be able to say that. Shipshewana was hard initially, but soon it became one of my strongest percentage towns for my entire career. Mel Reigsecker and Alvin Davis (State Rep. Joanna King’s father) became two of my long-time supporters and friends.

I did not view the Republican Party organizations as irrelevant, as they had come to be privately looked at by candidates able to build their own organizations and raise sufficient funds. The two biggest reasons – and every political race is tactical, analyzing the conditions unique to that race – were: 1.) 1994 turnout was going to be very low and 2.) the party organization – precinct organization, elected officials, candidates and supporters of those groups – would probably vote at a 90% plus level.

Incumbent U.S. Rep. Jill Long had won 62% in both of her last two elections. Our side was demoralized. Add that to the fact that none of the four major Republican candidates held a significant public office and our name ID was low to invisible, enthusiasm was not bubbling over. The 1994 political revolution began in late summer to early fall, long after the party’s nominees had been selected.

My campaign team was led by Mark Wickersham, the Huntington County vice chairman. In Whitley County, John Myers became my county coordinator and his friend Tommy Shupe of South Whitley was vice chairman in Whitley. I was very strong in Wells County. Mary Honegger, who I had recruited to be Dan Coats’ coordinator, was my treasurer. She made sure I met a person who was looking to get involved in politics, which is how Travis Holdman became my coordinator there.

Influential Wells State Rep. Jeff Espich's sister Marcia was married to Steve Gabet, who, among other things, had been our daughter’s pre-school teacher and whose sister I had dated at IPFW. Never, ever, underestimate the informal connections or you will get repeatedly blind-sided. There was no question that Carol Hoffacker was the county chairman most openly backing me. There were 10 counties in the district, but you get the idea. Generally. The chairmen were neutral but we were steadily picking up “worker bees” within the organizations.

We targeted them hard. We had a mailing list that included all committee people, elected officials and volunteers. We used it to promote issues but also highlight those joining our campaign. We did a “Christmas in Grabill” event at the log cabin behind our store with tours, free pie and a sales pitch. We split up the district into groups. It was not particularly successful in numbers but it was in reaching people and establishing a few long-time key people.

We did coffees, often with fewer than 10 people. At one in Grabill, for example, Robin Harris decided to get involved. She became a human dynamo, registered hundreds of people in northeast Indiana at churches and events, and also worked with media. We also had group meetings where we discussed ad strategies, goals and targets. It was slow but built upon a rock solid foundation.

Allen County, dominated by Fort Wayne, was about 40+% the district’s population. So we split it into seven “counties” and worked each section like a county. We worked on ward chairmen, precinct people, elected officials, and other sub-groups with considerable success. The heaviest Republican concentrations, such as St. Joe Township, became key, but we also wound up with some really committed activists in other parts of the city.

As we built ground up with committeemen and elected officials (often committeemen themselves), it gave some of the supportive county chairmen more flexibility.

Another thing was happening in 1994. As I mentioned, it was not yet the big Republican Revolution in 1993; therefore, the early people who filed for congressional seats were, across the nation, disproportionately conservative activists, especially social conservatives and anti-big government conservatives. At the time of the primary filing deadline, it looked like just a warm-up for the Democrats’ 41st and 42nd straight year of U.S. House control.

When President Clinton lit a fire under social conservatives by immediately reversing the pro-life and other conservative social policies after 12 years of Reagan and Bush, the brushfire never stopped burning. The HillaryCare grab to take over health policy was just one of the siren warning calls to pro-capitalist, market-based conservatives. It also united the medical community, which is seldom unified on anything. Clinton went after the military and was not popular among veterans. He made gun control an issue.

New groups started to appear and older ones, like right-to-life, became more political. Back in 1980, when Dan Coats asked long-time Allen County political boss Orvas Beers for advice, the changes were already coming. Orvas didn’t give commands anymore, or threaten, but he did give Dan invaluable advice: “Don’t ever cross the Spencerville Gun Club.”

Spencerville is a small, unincorporated town in DeKalb County. But it was a symbolic statement. Don’t forget that this is a “God, guns and country” district. One key person in my campaign office agreed with me on two things, nothing else: Israel and guns. In 1994, as the campaign shaped nationally, passion became an issue.

Since 1994, related to county chairmen, the primary change has been the increasing flow of money including self-funding in races. Even state representative races all of a sudden can need $200,000 to $400,000. It would seem that the old political structures are dead.

In my next column, I want to speculate a bit on how the changes in media may be changing all this again. Lots of money is always better than not having lots of money, but declining traditional media and fragmented social media dilute traditional influencers that a candidate can purchase. People to people may matter again. Some county organizations are preparing better for this than others. 

Souder is a former Republican member of Congress.