by Brian Howey
INDIANAPOLIS — On May 17, 1860, the Republican convention campaign team of native son Abraham Lincoln met with the Indiana and Pennsylvania delegations in Chicago. What emerged hours later was a bloc of Hoosiers who would vote for the president who would go on to become the Great Emancipator, a worldwide statesman of biblical proportions.
It is a proud chapter that began with the Indiana Republican Party in its nascent form. The party was only six years old and it played a decisive, early role in Lincoln’s improbable 1860 presidential nomination and subsequent victory that autumn. Gov. Oliver P. Morton would forge a strong relationship with President Lincoln. He was an emphatic backer of the Emancipation Proclamation, and he shrewdly kept Indiana in the Union by establishing a state arsenal, negotiating private loans to fund the war effort, and suspending what had become a Copperhead General Assembly after the 1862 elections.
For his decisive leadership and moral bearings that made the Indiana Republicanism a stanchion for “The Party of Lincoln,” Morton’s statue, along with two Union fighters, guard the eastern approach to the Indiana Statehouse to this very day.
There were other examples of Hoosier Republicanism which have stood the test of time. House Speaker Schuyler Colfax, a founder of the Republican Party after winning a congressional seat as a member of the anti-slavery Indiana People’s Party, played a crucial role in the passage of the 13th Constitutional Amendment of 1865 that forever banned slavery. So invested in that process, Speaker Colfax took the rare step of voting for the amendment in what would become one of the defining moments of the Lincoln presidency.
House Minority Leader Charlie Halleck had been a strong opponent of the liberal New Frontier and Great Society agendas of Presidents Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, but when it came to the watershed Civil Rights Act of 1964, Halleck was one of its most emphatic advocates.
With this history, watching the Indiana Republican Party of today is to see a proud, vivid organization stoop into a strange moral decay.
After two weeks of watching Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump call federal Judge Gonzalo Curiel a “Mexican,” (he was born and raised in East Chicago and has a degree from the Indiana University Law School), after watching Trump point to a man at a rally and say, “Oh, look at my African-American over here. Look at him”; after calling for a ban of all Muslims, which Gov. Mike Pence said was “unconstitutional and offensive,” Pence, U.S. Sen. Dan Coats and U.S. Rep. Todd Young could only find the term “inappropriate” to describe what House Speaker Paul Ryan called “textbook racism.” Republican Chairman Jeff Cardwell called the Curiel episode a “distraction.”
Hoosier Republicans are now attached to Trump. When they had the opportunity to push for a true conservative, they sat on their hands. Such a strategy worked in Wisconsin in March, when Gov. Scott Walker, other Badger State Republican officials and its conservative talk radio network set up a bulwark in an attempt to derail Trump. They succeeded as Ted Cruz won the state. but other states down the line, including Indiana, did not mobilize. Pence endorsed Cruz, but just a few days before the primary.
The reward was Trump’s 53 percent Indiana primary win that allowed him to assume the title of “Republican presidential nominee.” As it had with Lincoln, Indiana played a key, fateful role.
Influential Republicans stewed. Pence would endorse Trump two days after the primary, saying he would campaign for him. Sen. Coats came around in late May, saying that Trump was a preferred alternative to Hillary Clinton. Congressional delegation members Jackie Walorski, Todd Rokita, Lt. Gov. Eric Holcomb and U.S. Senate nominee Todd Young hid behind the phrase that they would “vote for the Republican nominee.”
And their reward? A racist nominee.
It took Attorney General Greg Zoeller, who will not be on the ballot this fall, to provide some moral clarity on the Curiel episode, telling Doug Ross of the NWI Times, “Our institutions are all under attack. Without the rule of law, you’ve got chaos. If there’s a legitimate question of bias, there is a professional way to raise that without showing disrespect for a judge and the system generally. This is nowhere close. I’m very sensitive to this, and I’m upset that members of the profession have not all come out and said this is what we don’t allow. We would all like more civility, that’s what we’re shooting for, and this is going in the wrong direction.”
Those “members of the profession,” – Pence, Coats, Rokita, Brooks, and Rep. Luke Messer – failed to denounce Trump in their roles as attorneys.
Is racism merely “inappropriate” in the Indiana Republican Party?
Many Hoosier Republicans I’ve talked to are in various states of torment, denial and acquiescence. There is an obvious out without voting for Hillary Clinton in backing the Libertarian ticket of former Republican governors Gary Johnson of New Mexico and William Weld of Massachusetts.
By sticking with Trump, they are firmly under the sheets with a wild, unpredictable, nativist, racist and megalomaniacal standard bearer. The outcome could be … “inappropriate.”
— The columnist is publisher of Howey Politics Indiana at howeypolitics.com. Find him on Facebook and Twitter @hwypol.