The odds say next Saturday's Allen County Republican caucus will give Steve Shine another four years at the helm of the party he has led for two decades. But whatever the outcome, the challenge from Jason Arp represents a rift the GOP must close if it hopes to compete successfully on the national stage.
Just as longtime Republican strategist Karl Rove has drawn fire for creating a national political action committee that some view as an attempt to prevent the nomination of tea party-backed candidates who may prove unelectable, Arp said he wants the local party to value its conservative roots over victory for its own sake.
“This isn't a football game. Just because they have an 'R' on their uniform doesn't mean they represent the viewpoint of smaller, limited government,” said Arp, 39, a landlord and self-investor. “Our bylaws say we should be promoting those ideas, human life and the U.S. Constitution. That's not what the party's doing.”
Arp directs most of his ire at the national level, saying the party has failed to offer voters a real alternative to big-sending Democrats. But he said the local party's failure to educate the public and its own candidates has at times produced similar results here.
“The GOP controls City Council, but it gave a raise (to employees) even though members know how difficult it is (in the private sector),” Arp said, noting that one prize has eluded the party for four terms despite its otherwise impressive won-lost record: the Fort Wayne mayor's office. And just last year, he added, the GOP nominated for president the candidate least-equipped to criticize Obamacare: Mitt Romney, who had implemented a similar program as governor of Massachusetts.
“(Republicans) are livid. They feel betrayed by the party. But why not start at the local level?” Arp asked.
History, however, seems to be against him. Four years ago, Shine handily won re-election against four challengers led by another tea-party activist, Ric Runestad. And although Arp contends that the number of empty precinct seats indicates dissatisfaction with the party – Shine said 93 are vacant – more than half the precinct officials who will vote were appointed by Shine, not elected by the public.
“But I was appointed by Shine,” Arp said.
Shine, of course, believes the state of the GOP has seldom been better – and not just because it holds most of the elective offices in Allen County.
If Republicans want to change Washington, he said, they need to elect conservatives to Congress. But we have already done that in the form of 3rd District Rep. Marlin Stutzman, “one of our most conservative congressmen,” according to Shine.
Remember when opponents accused Republicans of being in ideological lock-step? That has been exposed as the myth it always was. But also a thing of the past is Ronald Reagan's so-called 11th Commandment: “Thou shalt not criticize a fellow Republican.”
Ironically, this battle for the heart and soul of the local GOP has only reinforced why so many people have soured on politics. The original version of a recent column in this newspaper by Runestad criticized Shine in ways so personal that they could have been considered libelous. Shine has suggested that Arp's failure to vote in some elections indicates a lack of commitment to the party, and that the 2011 raid of a building he owns in Columbia City for alleged prostitution indicates a lack of oversight.
“You're a poor keeper if you don't know what's happening in your building,” said Shine, whose co-ownership of the Republican headquarters on Main Street drew criticism from Arp, who believes the party's rent (more than $27,000 in 2011) could be better spent.
“It's one of the lowest costs per square foot downtown,” Shine contended.
Arp, meanwhile, said he verified that the operators of the “Hello Spa” were licensed and appeared to be legitimate. “A landlord can't know everything tenants do. I felt betrayed,” he said.
Conservatives rightly consider it important to nominate candidates faithful to the Constitution and the concept of limited government. But Rove is right, too, to warn against the nomination of ideologically pure candidates whose gaffes – can anybody say Richard Mourdock? – cost the party vital seats it should have won.
So whoever prevails next Saturday, the local GOP would do itself a favor by putting aside its relatively minor differences and uniting behind whoever is left standing. It's voters, after all -- not party officials -- who elect candidates.
Barack Obama is still in the White House today in part because the party refused to heed that lesson in November. If the GOP still hasn't learned, maybe Republican Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal was right in January when he called it the “stupid party.”