A Republican on every ballot

In 2006, Chris Riley became the Republican chairman for St. Joseph County, Ind. At the time, he inherited a volunteer database consisting of 11 people and an antiquated Web site. Now, he sees the signs of a local Republican resurgence.
By Eli Saslow
in south bend, ind.
Sunday, November 15, 2009

Chris Riley planned this event because he wants to resurrect the Republican Party, but he opens the creaky front door to the St. Joseph County Republican headquarters and is reminded of the daunting task ahead. A book of political strategy from 1916 sits on an entry table. Portraits of heroes from the Reagan era decorate the walls. Dusty porcelain elephants stand atop an aging piano. A group of septuagenarians work in the kitchen, dividing store-bought cookies onto paper plates colored to look like American flags.

"Are we serving the chocolate-chip again?" Riley says.

Little has changed at the headquarters for decades, which is precisely Riley's dilemma. The 37-year-old lawyer accepted the unpaid position of county party chairman in 2006 -- "maybe the worst job in the world," he says -- and this was the Republican Party he inherited: A volunteer database consisting of 11 people. An antiquated Web site. A monthly newsletter that was published only sporadically. A fading community of conservatives who refused to run for local office because they suspected, Riley says, "that they would just get their teeth kicked in."

During a depressing 2008 election cycle for Republicans, Riley oversaw the party's darkest corner. His state, solidly Republican for 44 years, shifted more than any other and voted for Barack Obama. His county, which twice backed George W. Bush, also swung for Obama -- by a resounding 17 percent.

One year later, on a Thursday night in late fall, Riley hopes to inspire a local Republican comeback by hosting a recruiting event for aspiring politicians.

He arrives at the county headquarters on the outskirts of South Bend wearing what he calls "the uniform," an outfit he repeats at most party functions in order to establish an aura of classiness. The French cuffs of his banker's shirt are fashioned with cufflinks. His hair is parted and gelled. A fountain pen rests in the pocket of his suit. He stands just inside the entryway, hands behind his back and a smile frozen on his face, poised to greet the people he prays will come.

For more than a year, he has worked 30 hours a week to recruit local Republicans for this moment. A flyer on the door welcomes all comers to Candidates College, a series of lectures for Republicans who want to run for office. Riley has asked the volunteers in the kitchen to prepare for 25 people, but privately he wonders whether that many will come.

"We are rebuilding this party from the ground up, and there's nothing more important than finding people who will run for office," Riley says. "We've been such a dilapidated party that people have been embarrassed to put their name next to us and run. If we can't change that, then we don't have anything."

Early in his tenure as county chairman, Riley compiled a list of every elected position in St. Joseph County, a largely rural expanse of housing subdivisions and cornfields near the Michigan border. It is the fourth-largest county in Indiana, encompassing 10 towns and 13 townships, each with its own judges and town councils, its own clerks and coroners. By the time Riley finished his list, it included more than 100 political positions, fewer than 35 of those occupied by Republicans.

Riley thought Republicans could regain legitimacy only by finding candidates to run for all 100 slots, so he created a depth chart of would-be politicians. He began a habit of arriving at his law office in Elkhart each morning at 6:30 and devoting several hours to candidate recruitment before starting his regular workday. He developed a group of "five-star recruits" whom he e-mailed weekly: a dentist, the owner of local steakhouse and the public relations director at a South Bend hospital. Over and over, he called near strangers and asked: "Would you like to help rescue the Republican Party by running for office? And if not, do you know anyone who might make a good county assessor?"

Riley promised to provide each candidate with financial support for the campaign, yard signs, fundraisers and tutoring on political issues.

"I try to win people over with a little Irish charm, some lawyerly persuasion and a lot of free lunches," Riley says. "I think we've convinced people that this is a cause worth fighting for, but we still need some good candidates to commit and give us their names."

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