FORT WAYNE – Mary Trausch-Martin faced a dilemma. She was aggressively supporting Congressman Todd Rokita in a three-way Republican primary for U.S. senator. Mary is what would have historically been called a Republican activist, a lead volunteer at the heart of the party. She does nothing moderately. She has strong opinions on  just about everything. Mary was also the vice chairwoman of the 3rd District Republican Committee.

When Mike Braun, a candidate competing with Rokita, asked Mary for potential contacts at some meet-and-greet events in DeKalb and Steuben counties for his campaign, and then asked her to basically set them up, she was faced with the dilemma: Should she help him?

When parties were dominant, as opposed to candidate organizations, there were differing expectations. The county parties could offer jobs and had quasi-publicly funded resources. Some public funding was direct (e.g., 2% club), some indirect (e.g., license bureaus), and other means were pressure-forced indirect (e.g., pay-to-play contracts). The precinct workers theoretically elected the party leaders, but basically the party leaders picked themselves unless they became so calcified that somehow a challenger would emerge (usually during a transition, like in Allen County after Orvas Beers).

In the broader scheme, two basic factions in Indiana Republican politics emerged going back to at least the Eisenhower-Taft era, to some degree, isolationist vs. more internationalist. To some degree, more limited government versus more aggressive government action. To some degree, northern versus southern which evolved into variations of Indianapolis versus everyone else or big counties versus small counties. All factions were pro-business, mostly conservative and pre-abortion legalization; social issues were not particularly a dividing line. In some counties, the factions formed different branches of the parties.

The leaders of the county parties generally picked county and city candidates. Potential candidates sought out those informal endorsements. The party leaders, in constant interaction with the people who supplemented quasi-public funding with private money, would steer money to the favored candidates if someone dared challenge their choice.

In Fort Wayne, Graham Richard – a Goldwater fan as a kid – told me that he had wanted to be a committeeman but Orvas told him no, he needed to work his way up. Graham did, but as a Democrat. My understanding is that Win Moses had wanted to run for council, and was also told not to. So, Win filed as a Democrat and defeated the Republican incumbent.

The county chairmen and their allies, in other words, slated the precinct slots and not just top-of-the-ticket candidates. I once participated in an attempted precinct coup against Orvas Beers in Allen County in the early 70s. We polled all the committeemen and vice committeemen. We had some old 1964 Goldwater lists as well as some early Reagan lists as well as some other conservative lists. (They later were important for Quayle in his 1976 primary.)

A high percentage of the committee people were active, had not joined because of a particular candidate, had been elected not appointed, were very loyal to the chairman, and had polled their neighbors during campaigns. In other words, they had some influence.

They were also party loyalists. Not quite like the “yellow dog” Democrats of the south (they were called that because, it was said, they would vote for a yellow dog as opposed to a Republican) but they were party loyal. They did not waffle, or care that much about a candidate beyond whether he was an “R.” But already, in the early 70s, a third were ready to revolt for a more ideological, less “win at all costs” role for the party. In other words, on both sides, the trend toward the sharper ideological divisions was beginning.

As the political parties evolved, and the core of housewife volunteers – the less recognized vital heart of the Republican Party – declined due to opportunities for women in the out-of-home workplace, the volunteer power switched more and more to candidates and advertising. The precinct posts were filled by more ideological people, or candidate-chosen people, who did not have the same loyalty. Just because a candidate won the Republican nomination did not necessarily deliver that much support from the party.

Initially, Republican candidates who were not as conservative as the conservative Goldwater and Reagan factions began to get labeled “RINOs” (Republican in Name Only) because they weren’t much more conservative than moderate Democrats (when they used to exist). RINO eventually evolved into today’s chaos where it has nothing to do with conservative, or Republican, but literally has come to mean this, you don’t back the same Republican that I back.

All these changes meant that the local Republican party power declined steadily. But is it gone? I would argue that it is not. Mary Trausch-Martin is an example of why it survives, and potentially could rise even more in importance.

As mentioned earlier, Trausch-Martin is not a person who doesn’t care about ideas. Before Rokita, she worked with a very young Jim Banks who was working as a consultant for a conservative candidate who lost in a northwest Ohio Republican primary. When Mary moved to Steuben County, she became an activist for Banks’ first congressional campaign as well as in the Steuben GOP.

However, she took her selection as district vice chair in a traditional, not candidate-partisan, way. When Braun called, she agreed to help – though it was not without some personal anguish and amazement that she had been asked. Braun understood that, while she actually had helped him, it did not diminish her active support for Rokita. But she viewed her district job as one that helped all Republicans.

Braun’s campaign clearly illustrates the newest trend in politics: Not all candidates move up the traditional stepping stone system. This is especially true of the more expensive races, that are driven by dollar-purchased name ID but is increasingly moving down ballot. But just because media purchased campaigns are now the bulk of many political campaigns does not mean that the party and personal activists are irrelevant. In fact, people like Mary Trausch-Martin may become more valuable to add a personal touch to a predominantly media campaign, and especially valuable because such activists, while not extinct, are fewer.

Political parties may not be as powerful as they once were, but they are still important and have the potential of becoming more so. In the case of Mary Trausch-Martin, she remains a vocal Banks and Rokita supporter. Sen. Braun asked her to be his regional coordinator. And a few weeks ago, she was chosen to be the secretary of the Indiana Republican Party.  In other words, she survived her dilemma because principled but loyal Republican activists are so valuable. 

Souder is a former Republican congressman from Indiana.