A Republican on every ballot
In party's dark corner, a county chairman hustles to shape 'five-star' candidates

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."

So minutes before the beginning of Candidates College, Riley stands by the entrance, waiting. The size of this crowd, he says, will render one small verdict on the state of his party.

"We'll see," he says, "just how much progress we've made."

* * *

Riley became chairman after a handful of more experienced politicians turned down the position, and he spent his first few weeks in office wishing he had done the same. In introductory conversations with area Republicans, Riley heard his own misgivings about the modern Republican Party echoed back to him. What was with the supposed conservatives in Washington who endorsed big-government spending? Why had the party softened on its marriage principles? Where were the elected officials who stood for constitutional restoration?

Originally from California, Riley had settled in Indiana with his wife and two children in part because he thought the state was filled with people whose habits mirrored his own -- conservatives who read Bible stories to their daughters at night and hung pictures of Mount Rushmore in their office. But now, Riley heard those people referring to themselves as independents or even Democrats.

"It was apparent that nobody felt represented by the Republican Party anymore," Riley said. "The party had lost its way."

Riley tried to rally support behind Sen. John McCain during the 2008 election because, he said, "it was a requirement of my job." But he spent far more time working to attract a younger, more diverse demographic to local Republican gatherings by launching a Facebook page, opening a Twitter account and posting videos of the group's meetings on YouTube.

For the Republican Party's annual Lincoln Day dinner, Riley rented a dance floor and hung a strobe light. He hosted tailgate parties before Notre Dame football games and started a family bowling night. The Young Republicans Club, once dead, grew to 25 members. A weekly e-mail update sent to party volunteers, once an informal note from Riley's BlackBerry to 11 recipients, ballooned into a mass mailing coordinated by a marketing firm and delivered to 1,583 subscribers.

But the main source of the local Republican resurgence, Riley said, had nothing to do with his own initiatives. On Nov. 4, 2008, as polls showed Obama cruising to a win on Election Night, more than 150 people packed into Republican headquarters, risking violating the fire code. Dozens signed up as volunteers or wrote donation checks. A disc jockey played redemptive theme songs.

"We had never been stronger or had more energy than we did that night," Riley said. "Obama galvanized the Republican Party right then. It was like, 'Okay, the worst has happened. Now it's our turn.' "

In the ensuing months, Obama made two visits to Northern Indiana that unintentionally bolstered the St. Joseph County Republican Party. During a February presidential trip to Elkhart, a few miles outside the county border, protesters gathered to oppose Obama's stimulus bill. Months later, when he delivered the convocation address at Notre Dame University in South Bend, Riley embarked on a media tour to express his disdain for Obama's abortion-rights position.

Near the end of August, with Obama's approval rating dropping under 60 percent in the wake of contentious tea parties and health-care town halls, Riley received phone calls from two local Democrats. They explained that they were suffering from "buyer's remorse," and asked Riley whether he would support them as Republican candidates for political office.

"We will take anybody and everybody," Riley said, and he invited them to Candidates College.

* * *

Fifteen minutes before Candidates College is scheduled to begin, the first aspiring politician finally arrives at Republican headquarters. He's soon followed by a second, then a third, then a fourth. Within five minutes, a crowd bottlenecks near the doorway and a line forms outside. Riley greets each person with a bear hug, his frozen smile giving way to giddy elation.

"Wow," he says, eyeing another seven people as they enter. "This is starting to look like a movement."

In comes Charlie Gray, a 30-year-old tire engineer who attended his first Young Republicans meetings in December because he was furious about the bailout. Next is Debbie Fleming, a dentist inspired into politics by Sarah Palin. Then comes Mike Stack, public relations director at the hospital; and Richard Lochner, a retired Naval officer who "finally got sick of all this liberalism"; and Christiaan Corthier, who rejoined the Republican Party the day after Obama's election. "Pretty good turnout," Corthier says, surveying the room and finding no empty chairs.

"We probably have 75 people," Riley says. "It's standing-room-only."

Riley walks to the podium to introduce the Candidates College speakers. Jackie Walorski, a state representative now running for Congress, will begin the program with a motivational address. Then Jeff Rea, the Republican mayor of nearby Mishawaka, will offer logistical advice on campaign strategy. Some attendees take out legal pads to write notes. A woman near the back of the room, jammed near the cookie table, begins recording the session on a video camera.

"What a great night to be a Republican!" Walorski says as she steps onto the makeshift stage. The crowd claps, and Walorski starts her speech by recalling how furious she felt while watching the World Trade Center towers fall on Sept. 11, 2001. She was on vacation in Europe, she says, and she spent three days glued to the television.

"Now our country is under attack again," Walorski says. "You run for office for one of two reasons: You either want to start something or you want to stop something. Well, I want to stop something! We believe in keeping government out of our lives. Enough is enough. This is our window of opportunity. . . . People are going to look back at this election and say, 'Thank God.' Thank God that we as Republicans stood up and took our nation back."

Walorski receives a standing ovation, and Rea follows with what he calls "some common-sense advice" about how to run a successful grass-roots campaign. Talk to family members first, he says, to make sure they're behind you. Call the people on your Christmas card list, because those will be your most ardent supporters. Work to raise money, but never promise anything in return. Focus on supporters and not the detractors. Talk less about your opponent and more about yourself.

"Most of all," Rea says, "spend a lot of time at the grocery store. That's the best place to reach out to people during a campaign. Go to the grocery story every afternoon, whether you need something or not.

"For all of you, the timing right now is great. This is your chance to catch a wave. I have never seen excitement in the Republican Party like I do right now."

After Rea finishes, Riley stands up to remind the crowd that St. Joseph County will begin accepting declarations of candidacy on Jan. 20. He thanks everyone for coming and tells them to drive home safely, but instead of leaving, many of the Republicans flock toward the stage. A receiving line forms in front of Riley -- seven, 10, now 15 people eager to declare their candidacy this very minute.

"This is my pledge to you," Riley tells the group. "You will not have to do it alone. If you are ready to run, I will be here to work with you, help you, counsel you, give you every bit of my energy."

Now it's Riley who starts taking notes. Four people aspire to the county council in 2010. Some are interested in becoming sheriff. One fashions himself a good assessor. Another wants to be prosecutor. One more expresses interest in running for auditor.

When the line dissipates, Riley looks down at his updated depth chart of possible candidates. A Republican is listed next to almost every position now. Many are "five-star" recruits. The momentum has shifted. January can't come soon enough.

"Democrats are in for a surprise," Riley says. "We're back."

© 2009 The Washington Post Company