Curtin Hill walks to the 2016 Indiana Republican Convention where he won the attorney general's nomination. (HPI Photo by Mark Curry)
Curtin Hill walks to the 2016 Indiana Republican Convention where he won the attorney general's nomination. (HPI Photo by Mark Curry)

FORT WAYNE – It wasn’t the governor who defeated Curtis Hill, though he was not a Hill advocate. It was not the state chairman or the party organization. It took a strong candidate like Todd Rokita to win, but it was not Rokita who defeated Hill.  

The winner at the 2020 Republican Convention was the ABC coalition: Anybody But Curtis. In spite of an extraordinary record, in my opinion, and his campaign skills, ultimately his personal behavior defeated him. Been there, done that.

Conspiracy theories are the mainstream these days, on the left and the right. And theoretically, a state convention – a virtual state convention at that – should be a political boss’s dream. But it is not even clear that they even control delegates anymore, who used to be handpicked to reflect the local party’s convention goals.

Grassroots organizations matter much less in congressional races and certainly are not as relevant in statewide races. They become media hooks for television cameras, newspaper stories, and radio clips. Of course, none of them is as relevant any more either. Money matters. Lots of it. Self-funders are increasingly important.  

But if there is anyplace that the older system should matter, it should be in a convention especially if there is not a clear delineation of who is the Trumpiest. This was not a primary, or incumbent Attorney General Curtis Hill likely would have won. Nate Harter and John Westercamp would have been irrelevant. AG is not usually a contest people would spend their personal wealth to win.  

It was clear that Gov. Holcomb and the entire Republican state GOP leadership did not like Curtis Hill. This was not new, and his personal problems were just the last straw. Some was just typical political rivalries, some was due to the fact that Hill is just not a great team player, and there were also differing views about the role of an attorney general and a governor.  

Another way to view the role conflicts is to observe how Attorney General Jeff Sessions and President Donald Trump defined the role of AG differently. Is the post independent or is the AG the legal arm of the governor? Indiana just resolved a similar superintendent of public instruction debate by removing it as an elective office to an appointed one.

Another common expression among delegates was this: If you disliked Gov. Holcomb, you loved Curtis Hill. If you were a Holcomb fan, you were an ABC.  But if that had been the only criterion, Hill would have easily lost. Instead it was very close, meaning that many supporters of the governor also backed Hill. 

My operating assumption had been that the candidates had been generated by the state GOP and the governor’s allies, hoping they could control a convention. That appears to have been a bit of a stretch. More likely, Adam Krupp and John Westercamp saw an opportunity to run for the post when Hill was weakened but before the court ruled against him on the sexual misconduct charges. They were not going to win unless they were the only candidates and Hill cratered. As is evident from the convention voting, the attorney general was competitive to the end even against a very strong candidate.

When Nate Harter filed to run against his former boss, Krupp dropped out and endorsed him. To Hill supporters, Harter became the Benedict Arnold of Indiana. Westercamp, who declared against Hill even before the court ruled, was also not popular among Hill supporters. This was not just whispered.  

This becomes important when you don’t win on the first ballot.

Harter was publicly endorsed by the majority of district chairmen and more state legislators. At the end of the day, not only didn’t it get him the nomination, or even second place, but he only edged last place Westercamp by 38 votes.  

Todd Rokita was not exactly the fair-haired boy of the state party leaders either. As Brian Howey points out in this week’s Howey Politics Indiana, a critical point in Rokita’s political career was when he finished as the third choice of the state central committee as the 2012 gubernatorial nominee to replace vice presidential nominee Mike Pence. Rokita also lost the 2018 Senate nomination to Mike Braun.  

After the Supreme Court’s Disciplinary Commission held against AG Hill, Rokita announced for AG. To be fair, it is not clear that prior public endorsements held as much sway after Rokita entered. Some leadership people don’t change public endorsements (I was not one of those people) when situations change. Some go silent, or change behind the scenes. It likely happened in this race.

The strategy that State Sen. Erin Houchin outlined for Brian Howey in this issue was both hard and soft. First and foremost, like all good inside campaigns, you contact those who actually can vote. In 2002, as noted in a Howey Politics review of the secretary of state race in 2013, Rokita “drove 70,000 miles, attended 130 Lincoln Day Dinners, 1,500 meetings with individual delegates, and shook half a million hands.” This time Rokita mostly Zoomed around the state. And, as Houchin noted, worked the phones along with his key allies.  
Secondly, you need to know how to count. One time in my first congressional term, my fellow Class of ‘94 conservative trouble-makers were causing a ruckus about something. They were about to have a meeting with Majority Leader Dick Armey.  

Armey saw me in the hallway just off the House floor, and literally pulled me by my shirt into the room, then sat me down next to him. I objected all the way in, insisting that I had nothing to do with this argument. Armey said: “I know, but you are one of them and you can count.”

It is amazing how many politicians cannot count well in this type of contest.  “Good luck,” “I wish you the best,” and even “I’ll be cheering for you” means they are not voting for you. They tell you if they are voting for you. You count by “yes” votes. These races are not the era of good feelings.

Rokita repeated exactly what he did in 2002, updated for COVID-19 conditions.  Make sure you are number two but focus on the final ballot. In 2002, on the first ballot Rokita trailed Richard Mourdock 720 to 670 with Mike Delph receiving 341 votes and Dr. John McGoff 197. The second ballot Rokita trailed Mourdock 827 to 813.  On the final ballot, Rokita won by 847 to 753. Second choices matter.
It appears the Hill people had a single slot strategy: List Hill and only Hill. Rokita worked to make sure he was the last man standing going into the final ballot, and then rounded up the ABC coalition. On the second ballot, assuming the Hill voters remained loyal (remember, no delegate could see the emerging patterns in a virtual convention – they voted every ballot at the beginning), the Westercamp voters broke 122 for Rokita, 105 for Harter and 46 for Hill. On the third ballot, the 432 Harter voters broke 75% for Rokita. Rokita received 272 to 100 for Hill.  

Head-to-head by ballot, it was Hill 655 to Rokita 479, then Hill 701 to Rokita 601, with a final vote of Rokita 873 to 801 for Hill. He did it again.  In this case, history didn’t just rhyme, it repeated itself. The biggest difference was that in a virtual convention only 76 ballots dropped off whereas in 2002, at a live convention, 328 had left by the final ballot.   

I once counted votes in a critical race for Republican leader of the House to replace Denny Hastert. I nominated my friend John Shadegg, with Paul Ryan and Pete Hoekstra doing the seconds. We knew we were the outsiders. Whip Roy Blunt was the presumed leader with John Boehner on his heels. We knew every vote we had, around 45 as I recall. We also knew their second choice. Blunt led the first round and only needed a couple of votes to win. All of our votes went for Boehner and he narrowly became the next leader of the House Republicans. Counting is important.  

In modern Indiana GOP history, there is no better convention vote counter than Todd Rokita because he is a throwback politician.  He actually talks to voters and listens. And, as Brian Howey has outlined today, he, Houchin and their team had a clear strategy. At the end of the day, round up the ABC voters from wherever they were located and have them on the final ballot.  

Souder is a former Republican congressman from Indiana.