An established incumbent Republican with a record of accomplishment faces an intra-party challenge from a right-wing extremist on the party’s fringes.
In some ways, the challenge Steve Shine faces for his Allen County Republican Party chairmanship is a smaller version of last year’s Senate primary battle between Richard Lugar and Richard Mourdock that exemplifies the struggle within the GOP nationwide.
Pragmatists such as Lugar want to accomplish realistic goals and win elections. Idealists such as Mourdock are willing to push right-wing views about social issues on an electorate that largely disagrees.
But contrary to Mourdock’s victory over Lugar last May, Jason Arp is likely to be no more successful in unseating Shine as GOP chairman than Ric Runestad was four years ago. Arp, like Runestad, is trying to cast Shine as a liberal, a characterization that a fringe faction of the party may believe but certainly not the party’s mainstream and especially not Democrats and independents.
Similarly, Arp has described 2012 GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney as far too liberal, and he’s been critical of other elected Republicans closer to home, including state Sen. David Long.
Though Arp has quickly developed a reputation among some local Republicans for emphasizing political ideology over the mechanics of running a party organization, he does have specific ideas about changes for the local GOP. They include eliminating the noxious assessment the party charges its elected officeholders, the equivalent of 8 percent of their salary. The party likes it because it is a guaranteed source of funds, but Arp accurately describes it as a vestige of the old patronage system once employed by party bosses.
Shine has the public support of a number of the most conservative members of his party, including U.S. Rep. Marlin Stutzman; state Sen. Jim Banks; Cathie Humbarger, executive director of Allen County Right to Life and GOP precinct committeewoman; and Jon Olinger, a former Fort Wayne Community Schools board member. Others who have recently written favorably of Shine include former City Councilwoman Liz Brown and Glenna Jehl, manager of Matt Kelty’s mayoral campaign in 2007.
As young, tech-savvy Republicans across the nation are encouraging their party’s elders to drop their election-losing opposition to gay marriage and abortion under any circumstances, Allen County Republicans have made some progress in mending the pragmatist vs. far-right idealist battle that split the party in the 2007 mayoral primary between mainstream Republican Nelson Peters and right-winger Kelty.
I appreciate what Steve does because he has to keep me happy, he has to keep Ric Runestad happy, he has to keep John McGauley (the county recorder and party mainstreamer) happy, Olinger said.
Cathy Hawks, music director at The Chapel and former vice chairwoman of the Allen County GOP, also notes the need for a county chairman to be welcoming to a wide variety of beliefs and values.
Steve Shine is a conservative, Hawks said. He’s extraordinarily loyal to the Republican Party. He works very hard for the party.
Shine and his supporters point to Arp’s relative lack of political experience. He became a precinct committeeman only last fall – appointed, ironically, by Shine. And Arp did not vote in the 2008 GOP primary, the 2010 general election (when Republicans nationwide re-took the House) or the 2011 city primary and election. Arp said he skipped the 2010 election because he didn’t like the Republican candidates, who were the ultraconservative Stutzman and Sen. Dan Coats.
Another factor Shine has in his favor: He appointed many of the precinct committeemen and vice committeemen who will elect a party chairman at South Side High School on Saturday. While Runestad has suggested that is unfair, those appointments illustrate one attribute of a successful party leader: Finding people who will take precinct roles after no one sought them in the GOP primary.
Yet Arp contends Shine has failed to fill numerous vacancies among the precinct leaders. Republicans have 227 eligible to vote for the chairman, compared with 338 four years ago.
That’s 100 people less to work for the party, Arp said.
Shine acknowledges that it’s very hard to fill precinct positions, but that of the 227, only 96 were elected in the primary; he appointed the remainder.
He has also appointed 21 additional officials, but they are ineligible to vote Saturday because they were appointed recently.
Arp, Shine notes, did not seek a precinct position in the primary election but did seek appointment later.
Indeed, running the Allen County GOP is a lot more about filling precinct vacancies and pushing attendance at the bean dinner and making sure all voting precincts are fully staffed on Election Day than it is about political ideology.
Arp, Olinger said, is not going to be able to pick up the phone and get an Eric Cantor, the well-known Republican congressman who is the keynote speaker for the local Lincoln Day dinner.
Olinger said he understands Arp’s concerns about Democratic initiatives that Arp believes are an assault on the Constitution. But I can’t think of a worse place to fight that battle than as county party chairman, Olinger said.
Arp, in a letter to the precinct officials who will vote for party chair, wrote: Where I see the role of Chairman of the County Party coming into play in all this is to not only facilitate debate within the party and the public arena, but to be an Advocate for the ideals that Jefferson penned in July of 1776.
We at the local level are going to have to drag the Party Leadership back to our positions on these matters.
Some New Haven-area Republicans who attended a meeting with Arp recently said Arp focused heavily on Washington politics and the U.S. Constitution while barely discussing the local party and its operations. He talked more about Washington than the local party, said one, who asked not to be named because he did not want to be part of an intra-party battle.
Nationally, the GOP is caught in a struggle between mainstream party members who realize they need to appeal to the political middle and a conservative faction that believes the way to win elections is to select candidates even further to the right. Karl Rove, one of the brains behind George W. Bush’s successful presidential runs and still a leading GOP strategist, has promised to use his influence – and his super PAC – to nominate more electable candidates and fewer Richard Mourdocks.
There is a broad concern about having blown a significant number of races because the wrong candidates were selected, Steven J. Law, president of Rove’s American Crossroads PAC, told the New York Times. We want to pick the most conservative candidate who can win.
In some ways, Republicans are going through what Democrats experienced in the 1970s and 1980s, nominating candidates such as George McGovern and Michael Dukakis who were simply too liberal for the nation.
Democrats found their balance – and regained power – by nominating Bill Clinton, a southern governor who had great appeal to the political center.
As younger people become more involved in politics and the nation becomes increasingly more diverse, social issues have become an albatross for the GOP. Former Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels was as diplomatic as possible when he suggested the GOP put social issues on the back burner and instead emphasize fiscal conservatism.
Shine, to his credit, understood the need to embrace diversity long before some other members of his party, actively recruiting minorities and women for party roles and encouraging their candidacy for office soon after his election as party chairman in 1993, succeeding the renowned Orvas Beers.
Beers had a reputation for controlling the party with an iron hand, often deciding who would be a candidate and who wouldn’t. Shine, for the most part, has refrained from taking sides in primary fights – and has been criticized both for being too hands-off and too hands-on.
In fact, many politicos consider being the party chairman a thankless – as well as unpaid – position.
Not that Shine is without political weaknesses. While Republicans dominate county-level politics, the GOP has lost four of the five Fort Wayne mayoral races that have taken place with Shine as party chair. Plus, legislative seats that cross county lines that were once held by Allen County residents have gone to residents of other counties. And with his booming voice and effusive personality, Shine can sometimes – especially to opponents – appear to cross the line into abrasiveness.
Challenging Shine on those issues and recruiting supporters to voting precinct positions could propel a challenger to the chairman’s position. But winning by casting him as too liberal is a losing strategy.
The Arp wing of the party also believed Richard Lugar was too liberal to win the nomination for Senate last year and that Nelson Peters was too liberal to be the party’s candidate in 2007, despite Lugar’s and Peters’ long record of conservative views.
History shows how well that worked out.