Gizzi on Politics: Sept. 10-14

The ‘Indianapolis 400’ — or So

Indianapolis, Ind.–“Sometimes God writes lousy scripts for us” was a favorite saying of cynical film director Harry Dawes, portrayed by Humphrey Bogart in The Barefoot Contessa. It would certainly seem to apply to recent Republican gatherings.

Some 400 delegates, reporters and guests attended the Midwest Republican Leadership Conference in Indianapolis, Ind., August 24-26. But the number, state GOP officials told me, probably went up to nearly 500 on the Saturday of the event, as many people came in late just to hear dinner speaker and then-soon-to-announce presidential contender Fred Thompson. Moreover, Michigan could not send delegates who would stay long, since their state committee meeting was being held the same weekend. The other presidential hopefuls who addressed the conference were former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee (who was serenaded with a chorus of “Happy Birthday” when he addressed the conference on his birthday August 24) and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.
But the conclave at the Westin Hotel was obviously different from the one last hosted by Indianapolis GOPers back in 1997. Then, more than 800 Republicans packed the leadership conference. Indiana Republican National Committeewoman Diane Adams told me, “We didn’t have the White House then, and everyone was excited about the coming campaign. It was a different complexion.” Adams, did not explain, however, why having the White House now and being poised for an exciting and unpredictable presidential race would somehow dampen turnout.

Some highlights of the ’07 Midwestern Republican Leadership Conference…Shades of ‘74!

One symptom of the ’74 GOP disaster pundits and pols still vividly remember was that candidates who had been considered attractive Republican hopes opted not to run and left races to “B team” candidates.  Arriving in Indianapolis, I had eerie reminders of ’74.
While confirming that we would meet at a barbeque featuring Mitt Romney, veteran Ohio political consultant Rex Elsass dropped a bombshell on me: Former State Atty. Gen. Jim Petro, who Elsass had assured me only two days earlier had wrapped up the Republican nomination to succeed retiring GOP Rep. Deborah Pryce, had chosen not to run after all.  (This was a bombshell to me because Human Events had just gone to press, and I had quoted in “Politics” Elsass’s previous assurance that Petro would be the nominee in the Columbus-area district.)

Now, it turns out that a district that has been firmly in Republican hands for nearly half a century could easily fall to Democrat Mary Jo Kilroy, who came within just a few more than 1,000 votes of unseating Pryce last fall.

Such ’08 “no-goes” are not confined to Ohio.  I inquired of Indiana party operatives about their chances of regaining the three U.S. House districts Democrats won from the GOP in ’06.  It wasn’t a pretty picture:  No Republican of substance has yet surfaced in the 8th District (Evansville) that GOP Rep. John Hostettler held for 12 years until his defeat by Democrat Brad Ellsworth in ’06. In the 2nd District (Terre Haute), where Democrat Joe Donnelly unseated Republican Rep. Chris Chocola last year, state and national GOP efforts to recruit two heavyweight contenders for ’08 — State Rep. Jackie Walorski and Elkhart County Prosecutor Curtis Hill — have fallen short.

In the 9th District (Lafayette), signs were strong that Republican Mike Sodrel and Democratic Rep. Baron Hill would have the fourth round in what seems an ongoing political rivalry. Sodrel lost a close race to Hill in ’02, unseated Hill in ’04 and lost the rubber match to the Democrat in ’06. Cam Savage, press secretary to Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels and formerly press secretary to Sodrel, told me, “Yes, I think Mike will run again, but he won’t announce soon.”

Privately, Republicans in the Hoosier State voiced doubts that they could recruit enough heavyweight contenders to overturn the 51-to-49 Democratic majority in the state house of representatives.  As one operative told me, “Look, we survived in three districts by fewer than 30 votes.  Had a handful of votes changed, the Democratic edge would be a lot bigger.”

Taking the Fifth

Unless you’re from Indianapolis, chances are you haven’t heard that the Republican House member who has represented what is arguably the safest GOP District in Indiana, the 5th, faces a strong opponent in the May 6, 2008, primary.

The challenge of Dr. John McGoff to 26-year Rep. Dan Burton (lifetime American Conservative Union rating: 97%) has next to nothing to do with ideology. Both are strong conservatives. Instead, emergency physician and former two-term Marion County Coroner McGoff is running as a reformer. As he told me, “My opponent was the only member of Congress to vote against the stronger ethics package for lawmakers passed by the House, and he once missed 19 votes while golfing in California. After [disgraced former Republican Representatives] Duke Cunningham [Calif.] and Bob Ney [Ohio], we deserve better.”

For his part, Burton is taking his opponent seriously. He has signed on veteran GOP consultant Brian Berry to quarterback his re-election bid and has raised five times the $200,000 raised by insurgent McGoff. “Yes, he has outraised me,” noted McGoff, “Almost 89% of his money comes from outside the district and all of mine is from the district.”

A protégé of former Marion County Coroner Dennis Nicholas (who was state chairman of Ronald Reagan’s primary campaigns in 1976 and ’80), McGoff generally takes a conservative stand on most issues—although he points out that he is opposed to the death penalty. He is also a strong supporter of the U.S. effort in Iraq, having served there as an Air National Guard colonel in the 181st Medical Group.

“If you want to characterize me, you might say I’m like [Arizona GOP Rep.] Jeff Flake,” said McGoff, “I’m for less government and lower taxes first and foremost.”

Lincoln Lives

Although speaker after speaker at the Indianapolis conference invoked the name of Ronald Reagan, it was also interesting to find frequent oratorical references to the first Republican President. Although he is forever being scrutinized by history and is still controversial in some circles, Abraham Lincoln is often quoted by GOP campaigners. Whether he acted constitutionally in suspending habeas corpus during the Civil War or even in fighting to preserve the union when the Constitution never ruled out secession, the rail-splitter from Illinois seems a relatively happy memory for his heirs in the party he led to the White House in 1860. Most recently, Doris Kearns Goodwin’s best-selling book Team of Rivals, which discusses how the 16th President made the unique move of naming almost all his GOP nomination rivals to his cabinet, has kept the Lincoln flame burning brighter.

In a moving breakfast talk, in which he revealed a recent stroke and a bout with cancer, former Ohio Secretary of State and ’06 GOP gubernatorial nominee Ken Blackwell recalled how his health recovery was helped by reading about Lincoln’s political and personal setbacks before becoming President and how he overcame them.  “If he can go on to do the things he did,” Blackwell told a hushed audience, “then this party can get off the mat after its setbacks in ’06.”

Indiana State Treasurer Richard Mourdock was introduced to the conferees as “the hardest-working man in showbiz” — a reference to the fact that because he is a Lincoln aficionado he is the most in-demand speaker in the Hoosier State for Lincoln Day dinners.
Speaking of how her state party elected businessman Gary Emineth as the new GOP chairman, North Dakota National Commiteewoman Connie Nicholas recalled how “Gary had been our executive director of the party in the 1980s, then he moved out of state for work in the grocery and software businesses. He and his wife returned to Bismarck because they felt it was the best place to raise their children.  But what prompted him to get back into politics and become chairman was that he read Goodwin’s Team of Rivals.”