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Courtesy of Mark Helmke
The podium sign from the 1964 Indiana Republican Party convention.

Five myths about the GOP

The podium of the Indiana Republican Party convention at the state fairgrounds in Indianapolis 50 years ago displayed this 20-inch by 20-inch sign.

The Republican elephant is firmly planted in central Indiana along old U.S. 40, now Interstate 70. That is the Mason-Dixon line of Indiana Republican politics.

The elephant's trunk whips itself back to Fort Wayne. The axis between Indianapolis and Fort Wayne is the foundation of the modern Republican Party. It's fitting that, beginning Friday, the State Republican Convention will meet in Fort Wayne.

(Confession. I swiped the sign at the end of the convention. I was 12 years old.)

MYTH 1

The Indiana Republican Party is the party of Lincoln.

Abraham Lincoln, who grew up in Indiana, led the newly formed Republican Party to national dominance after the election of 1860. The party was a mishmash of various causes ranging from cheap land prices in the west, abolition of slavery, cheap money from the banks, decentralized government and anti-immigrant policies.

There was a lot opposition to the Civil War. Republican Gov. Oliver P. Morton used the militia to close down a Democratic Party meeting considering secession.

Anti-war Copperhead activity was prevalent in northern Indiana, “copperhead” being a Northerner who sympathized with the South. The new German and Irish immigrants who populated Fort Wayne and other northern Indiana cities did not vote for Lincoln. They came to America to escape European wars.

Fort Wayne didn't become Republican until World War I. It was a backlash against the anti-immigrant policies in the Democratic Wilson administration, which required the registration of all alien Germans in Indiana, including those whose grandparents had been born in Germany. The German-American Bank and German-American Life Insurance Company also adopted the Lincoln mantle.

MYTH 2

Crazy, right-wing tea party leaders took over the Republican Party.

In some places they have, but not for long. The Republican tea party movement famously defeated my longtime boss, seven-term U.S. Sen. Richard Lugar, in 2012. The highly respected Lugar had run unopposed in the general election in 2006.

Visceral opposition to Barack Obama's overt support for Lugar's international arms control efforts in the 2008 presidential election in Indiana fueled the tea party opposition to Lugar.

Some of us in the Lugar organization wanted to take on the tea party. National Republican Senate Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky disagreed. After Lugar's defeat, McConnell changed course and destroyed his tea party primary opponent this year through negative advertising.

The political tide turns. Current circumstances are not as bad as they were in the 1920s and 1930s when D.C. Stephenson, a Ku Klux Klan grand wizard, took control of the Indiana Republican Party and elected two Klan governors, who were later convicted of tax fraud.

Stephenson coined the memorable phrase, “Everything is OK in American politics as long as you don't get caught in bed with a live man or a dead woman.” He died in the state prison after murdering a Statehouse secretary.

Even after Stephenson's demise, Indiana Republicans fought fierce political battles between Stephenson's political descendants, led by U.S. Sen. Bill Jenner, and Indiana's other U.S. senator, Homer Capehart.

Capehart turned Wendell Willkie's 1940 campaign for president into a Republican reform movement in Indiana. Jenner was denied the gubernatorial nomination in 1948, and a long line of reasonable conservative Republican leaders emerged through the leadership of governors like Bob Gates, Otis “Doc” Bowen, Bob Orr, Mitch Daniels and Mike Pence.

Pence, along with State Senate Republican Leader David Long, displayed the traditional Indiana Republican wisdom to sideline the anti-gay marriage amendment and develop a reasonable state-directed alternative to President Obama's health care initiative.

MYTH 3

Republicans are anti-womenn.

OK, many Republican politicians have said stupid things about women. Mitt Romney's “binders of women” didn't help his election chances. Richard Mourdock's comments about rape cost the GOP an Indiana Senate seat.

At the same time, Lugar's women's leadership program since the 1980s promoted hundreds of Hoosier women into politics, including the current lieutenant governor, members of Congress, numerous state senators and representatives, and city and county officials. The misogynists in the party better watch out.

MYTH 4

Republicans are anti-young people.

The Obama campaign in 2012 shocked the Republican establishment in Ohio by recruiting thousands of young voters who the Republicans thought didn't vote. Obama's Democrats changed the equation.

Republicans are still scratching their heads wondering what to do with so-called millennials, kids born 20 years ago in the early 1990s.

My students at Trine University are millennials. We discuss national polling data to see how they fit in. They come from the small towns and cities within 100 miles of Angola in Indiana, Ohio and Michigan.

Most are highly motivated student-athletes. They are the future of our region's commerce and civic life. They are the backbone of the future Republican Party.

When it comes to economic issues, these young people are conservatives. They idolize Ronald Reagan. The consequences of the housing bubble of 2008 and the Great Recession that followed remade these kids in the same way the Great Depression changed the political and economic mindset of their grandparents. They want the freedom to make money. They also want to stop exploitation in the financial markets.

These economic conservatives are also social liberals. Immigration reform. Gay rights. Legalized marijuana. They're all OK with my conservative Midwestern students. Even the NRA members support background checks, licensing and training requirements, and oppose open-carry laws.

MYTH 5

Republicans are isolationists.

During my many years working for Sen. Lugar on the Foreign Relations Committee, I enjoyed telling European colleagues that most Americans were isolationist for good reason: “Our ancestors left your countries for good reason.” They laughed until I reminded them that America saved them three times in the 20th century.

The American military machine today is bigger than any force in world history. American taxpayers subsidize the free flow of trade around the world. Whenever there is a disaster, only the American military can react in time.

This is the price we pay for America's freedoms. Ignoring these responsibilities and costs will harm us more than we can acknowledge.

Mark Helmke, a former press secretary and Senate Foreign Relations Committee staff member for Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., is a member of the faculty at Trine University in Angola. He wrote this for The Journal Gazette.

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