The bipartisan anger of “tea parties” nationwide set the tone.
This month's near-victory by a previously obscure third-party conservative candidate in a New York congressional race set the stage.
Now the battle for the heart and soul of the Republican Party is coming to northeast Indiana, where - to hear Phil Troyer tell it - it's time to lower the curtain on a supposedly conservative politician who has forgotten his roots.
Is Mark Souder, who just this week blasted a possible government takeover of the health care industry, really a liberal? Troyer, who announced his candidacy for Souder's 3rd District congressional seat, seems to think so.
Troyer, who chaired clergyman Rick Hawks' 1990 congressional race and unsuccessfully sought the job himself two years later, thought he was done with politics. “However, when Souder voted in favor of the $700 billion bailout of Wall Street (last year), I decided someone needed to do something,” he said.
“I began researching Souder's record on spending and was profoundly dismayed at what I found. He may talk like a fiscal conservative when he is back home, but he votes like a big-spending liberal when he is in Washington.”
This isn't the first time Souder has faced a credible primary opponent since defeating incumbent Democrat Jill Long in 1994. But it may just be the most obvious and potentially serious threat from the party's conservative base. Former Fort Wayne Mayor Paul Helmke lost to Souder by 20,000 votes in 2002, and former Deputy Prosecutor Mike Loomis fell about 11,000 votes short in 2000. But Helmke, who now heads a national gun-control group, was clearly to Souder's left. And even Loomis - a staunch conservative who blasted Souder for voting to acquit Bill Clinton on three of four articles of impeachment - criticized Souder for voting to spend too little money on local road projects
The 45-year-old Troyer, a former aide to Indiana Sens. Dan Coats and Richard Lugar, criticizes Souder for precisely the opposite reason, citing 2008 National Taxpayer Union figures giving Souder a favorable rating of 51 percent - 15 percentage points below the GOP median.
Troyer said Souder has supported $50,000 for the National Mule Packers Museum, $200,000 for the University of Maine's Lobster Institute and $2 million for a center for public policy at the City College of New York named after ethically challenged Democratic Rep. Charles Rangel. Troyer even questions Souder's efforts to secure $11 million in federal funds for the extension of Maplecrest Road.
“I have a 9-year-old daughter, and when I see what Congress is doing to the next generation with debt, as a father I need to say, ‘That just isn't right.' ”
Although Troyer said his candidacy was not instigated by local members of the tea-party movement, he said he has been in contact with them - many of whom supported Matt Kelty in the 2007 mayoral primary that caused divisions within the Allen County GOP that have yet to completely heal. Troyer doesn't expect that to happen this time around, however. In fact, he thinks he would be best-equipped to defeat the likely Democratic opponent, Fort Wayne physician and former City Councilman Tom Hayhurst.
“I'm not an incumbent, and I believe in limited government,” he said.
But Troyer believes he has more than a widespread “throw-them-all-out” mentality going for him. The national Republican Party may still have some image problems, but a recent Gallup poll found that 40 percent of Americans call themselves conservative, compared with 36 percent moderate and just 20 percent liberal.
Troyer knows there is no easy way to recover from a national debt that is $12 billion and rising fast. But that's no reason not to control spending now, instead of throwing billions of tax dollars at failed industries and companies, even those that employ thousands of people back home.
Souder wasn't available for comment, but Allen County GOP Chairman Steve Shine defended the incumbent for some of the very reasons Troyer criticized him.
“Souder has been a superb representative, adhering to the conservative values of the district while being cognizant of its needs, such as on his support for General Motors, which is why for the first time in history the plant is running three shifts.”
Souder, in other words, is a conservative who has learned how to be pragmatic. Troyer, who is starting his campaign with $25,000 of his own money, describes himself as “more ideologically pure.”
Can that approach win an election, let alone govern effectively, even in this admittedly conservative district? The more Washington does, the better Troyer's chances will get.