INDIANAPOLIS — The Republican Party holds the Indiana governor’s office, supermajorities in both legislative chambers and the majority of county-level elected offices.
Political watchdogs rate the state as a safely red district, but different sects seek to define what being “conservative” means. For moderates, libertarians or far-right extremists, 2021 would be the year to plant roots and grow influence in the Indiana GOP.
Andy Downs, director of the Mike Downs Center for Indiana Politics at Purdue University, said Indiana’s four-year election cycle dictates that many party officers at the county level and precinct committees will be chosen this year. There will be no general election in 2021, meaning political parties can focus internally.
“Any group that is looking to change a political party is very lucky if it’s this year,” Downs said. “The opportunity exists for someone who wants to change the position of a party or to run for office within the party.”
Like most political groups, Indiana’s Republican Party has several factions, all attempting to sway voters and gain strength at the polls.
“I think the party has always had a big tent and a wide variety of ideas. I don’t think that’s any different today than it has been historically,” said Kyle Hupfer, chairman of the Indiana Republican Party.
“I think (debate) is healthy. We’ve always come out stronger for it, and I think that’ll continue to be the case.”
Rep. Jim Lucas, a Republican from Seymour known for his inflammatory social media posts, agreed that most conservatives share common ground. But Lucas has criticized actions that Gov. Eric Holcomb, the Indiana Republican Party leader, has taken to combat the pandemic.
Holcomb’s executive orders, such as a mask mandate and business capacity limits, were made without legislative input. Two months into the 2021 session, Lucas denounced the General Assembly, where both chambers are controlled by Republicans, for taking no action to overturn the governor’s orders.
“(March 6) is the one-year anniversary of a declared emergency by the executive branch in the state of Indiana. And during that declared emergency we saw people that were prohibited from going to church,” Lucas said. “We are past the halfway point of the session. We’re in session when we can do something, and we’ve done nothing.”
CONSPIRACIES, EXTREMISMIn particular, the QAnon mass conspiracy theory has taken root among some conservative Hoosiers. The movement appeals to supporters of former President Donald Trump.
QAnon believers claim Trump secretly fights “deep-state” enemies, including Satan-worshiping cannibals who operated a child sex-trafficking ring out of a Washington, D.C., pizza parlor. High-profile adherents include Georgia Republican Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, whose endorsement of racist and anti-Semitic conspiracy theories cost her committee assignments.
A Bloomfield woman arrested for involvement in storming the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 reportedly “spoke supportively of QAnon and other conspiracy theories,” according to charging documents. QAnon believers also showed their support at the Indiana Statehouse in January, holding signs bearing the QAnon phrase “#WWG1WGA” for ‘Where we go one, we go all.’
For Hupfer, the QAnon movement is part of a larger societal struggle with truth and facts exacerbated by the emotional toll of the pandemic.
“I don’t think QAnon is part of the Republican Party,” Hupfer said. “Leaders need to lead in a fact-based, solution-oriented manner and stick to the actual facts that are proven. Not opinions and not conspiracy theories.”
Perhaps better documented is the participation of some Hoosiers in far-right movements, such as the Oath Keepers and Three Percenters.
“Whether it is a QAnon-supporting group or Three Percenters or Oath Keepers or whatever … Indiana actually has a rather long history with groups like that,” Downs said.
“You find instances where Indiana or the people from the state are playing a pretty significant role in groups that have gotten national attention. Even if the groups are not as large as the KKK was in the … 1920s.”
While the far-right movement could fade into just a blip on the historical radar, Downs said Indiana would need to be prepared if it endures.
“I think it’s something that folks have to be ready to confront, but I also think part of that is just the product of the moment in which we are living,” he explained.
HOOSIERS IN THE RIOTAuthorities investigating the Jan. 6 storming of the U.S. Capitol have discovered far more extensive and violent plans of attack from extremist groups, including the Oath Keepers and Proud Boys. Some of the Hoosiers arrested for their participation have documented ties to such groups, such as “lifetime” Oath Keeper Jon Schaffer.
Schaffer, a heavy metal guitarist from central Indiana, stands accused of using bear spray on Capitol police officers.
Lucas, who has posted on social media about the Three Percenters movement and has his own militia tattoo, said calling the events of Jan. 6 an insurrection is “horribly inaccurate” and borders on “incompetent reporting.”
“I don’t condone violence at all and what happened at the Capitol needs to be dealt with accordingly. But we also can’t lose sight of … that was a very small group of people from both sides of the political spectrum,” Lucas said.
“The FBI just reported that there were no firearms recovered, no buildings were set on fire, and Congress was back in session within a matter of hours.”
Trump-appointed FBI Director Chris Wray called the Jan. 6 events “domestic terrorism” and said no anti-Trump groups participated in organizing the riot.
When interviewed for this article, Lucas initially said that just one person — Ashli Babbitt, who was shot by a police officer — died during the storming of the U.S. Capitol. After correction, he acknowledged that five, including a Capitol police officer, had died.
Lucas disagreed with the federal stance on the extremist groups, which the American Defamation League classifies as extremist anti-government groups, saying that only some are “bad apples.”
“When you look at the core principles of Oath Keepers, they’re men and women who have sworn to uphold their oath. Three Percenters, those are people (who) love freedom and want to avoid violence at all costs,” Lucas said.
“Those (bad apples) should be held accountable for their individual actions, but Oath Keepers, Three Percenters, those groups are 99.99% peaceful. They’re peace-loving, country-loving people.”
LIBERTARIAN SUPPORTThe growing popularity of the Libertarian Party, not extremists, might pose the biggest threat to the Indiana GOP.
Libertarian candidate Donald Rainwater won just over 11% of the vote in the 2020 governor’s race, nearly four times the level of previous electoral support for Libertarian gubernatorial candidates in Indiana.
Lucas endorsed Rainwater over Holcomb, splitting from the rest of his party leadership.
Rainwater’s popularity came at an unusual moment when many Hoosiers pushed back against mask mandates and advocated for statewide marijuana reform, Hupfer said. Additionally, he noted, Democrat Woody Myers performed poorly compared to his party’s candidates for governor in past election cycles.
“COVID was a unique circumstance that’s driven a lot of things over the course of the last year; it’s dominated the news cycle,” Hupfer said. “I don’t think what they showed was a Libertarian death for the Republican Party. … It remains to be seen, but I don’t see that as a long-term trend for the Republican Party.”
Hupfer pointed to recent signs of the party’s success despite such obstacles.
“We just had an election here in Indiana where Governor Holcomb got a record number of votes for a gubernatorial candidate,” Hupfer said. “We now hold 88% of all county-wide elected officials throughout the state. We’ve increased the number of seats we have in the state legislature.”
Downs said Libertarians would have to demonstrate they could succeed beyond one election, or else fade into obscurity like past movements and risk getting absorbed by the greater GOP.
“The two major political parties are pretty good at reaching out and bringing those folks who are dissatisfied back into the fold … if that requires changing their position on issues,” Downs said.
“They don’t necessarily like doing it, but they do it because in the end they want to win elections.”
Downs pointed to the ongoing influence of the Christian conservative movement, which first rose to prominence in the 1980s with its emphasis on social issues.
“Take a look at how the Republican Party’s position on something like abortion has evolved,” he said. “Prior to the 1980s, you could find plenty of Republicans who were fiscally conservative … but they weren’t running based on social issues like they are today.”
The COVID-19 pandemic lockdown launched Rainwater’s anti-mask platform into popularity and made people think the Republican Party suddenly had a deep divide, Downs added.
“The Republican Party is not the monolithic body that it often is credited as being. There have always been differing voices within the party,” he said. “The time period in which we’re living has complicated things or exacerbated this; these are very challenging times.”