Historical Odds and Ends: What’s old is new again

As we’ve watched political events in Indiana unfold over the past few weeks (and really, as we’ve watched them unfold nationally over the past few years) there’s a temptation to suggest that we’re witnessing things that have never happened before, that we’re in a uniquely historical time in our politics. But with more than 200 years of state history to draw on, it turns out that King Solomon was probably right: There is nothing new under the sun.

Consider the rise of Mike Braun, who is taking his outsider businessman campaign into a general election for U.S. Senate. Against the backdrop of a long line of Hoosier senators with deep political experience–Todd Young, Joe Donnelly, Dan Coats, and Dan Quayle all came from the U.S. House; Evan Bayh served as governor; Dick Lugar and Vance Hartke both served as mayors of major cities; Birch Bayh had been Speaker of the Indiana House; and Bill Jenner had been the State Senate Pro Tem–Braun (who only served a handful of terms as a rank-and-file state representative) certainly appears to have a unique background.

But Homer Capehart was the original trailblazer of the outsider-businessman-to-U.S.-Senate path. Capehart made millions after he founded Packard, the company that essentially invented the jukebox, and sold it to Wurlitzer. In 1938, he decided to get involved politically by hosting what he dubbed the “Cornfield Conference” on his farm in Daviess County. The event drew thousands of Republicans from around the country, attracted national attention and is credited with sparking a revival of the GOP that helped fight back against FDR’s Democratic Party. Just like Braun, it was only six years after his first involvement in partisan politics that Capehart found himself running for U.S. Senate on the strength of his business background (and the money he made along the way). While Capehart was ultimately successful and served three terms, we’ll have to wait until November to see if Braun can repeat the feat.

Similarly, there was much speculation that Mike and Steve Braun were poised to become the first brothers from Indiana running for (and potentially holding) seats in the U.S. Congress simultaneously. But this was first accomplished by Charles (9th District, 1897-1909) and Frederick (11th District, 1903-1907) Landis, brothers from Logansport, who were both on the ballot together in 1902, 1904 and 1906 (a third brother, Kennesaw Mountain Landis, served as a federal judge beginning in 1905, and became the first Major League Baseball Commissioner in 1920). While Charles gave up politics after his 1908 defeat, Frederick would spend nearly three decades wandering in the political desert after his defeat in 1906. He helped formed the Progressive Party in Indiana to support Teddy Roosevelt’s Bull Moose bid in 1912, serving as the chairman of the first Progressive Party Convention that year, as well as its lieutenant governor nominee. He helped run various Progressive campaigns in the ensuing years, none of which were successful. In 1928, he returned to the Republican Party as a candidate for governor but failed to win the nomination. In 1934, he gave elected office one more go and was the Republican nominee for the 2nd Congressional district, 28 years after his congressional career had ended. Improbably, out of Indiana’s twelve congressional races that year, Frederick Landis was the only Republican to win (unfortunately, he never got to enjoy his amazing comeback story as he died less than two weeks after the election).

Steve Braun’s loss in the 4th District primary means most Hoosiers still won’t get to hear about the Landis brothers, but Jim Baird‘s victory presents another seemingly unique proposition: Baird’s son Beau won the nomination to replace his father. While several state legislators have replaced their parents at the State House, you’d be forgiven for thinking a parent-child combo on the ballot for U.S. Congress and the state legislature is a first. But that was last accomplished in 1974, when U.S. Representative William Bray was up for re-election and his son, Richard, ran for a seat as a state representative. The father saw a 24-year career wiped out in the Watergate wave that year, but the son would go on to serve a combined 38 years as a state representative and state senator.

When Richard Bray retired in 2012, he was replaced in the State Senate by his son, Rod. Earlier this week, Rod Bray was elected as the next State Senate President Pro Tem, but it’s tough to find a historical first there, either. As I’ve written in the past, after the “Black Day of the General Assembly” in 1887, the Senate majority started electing a full-time President Pro Tem as their first action each session. The first Pro Tem elected under this new scheme was James Franklin Cox, who–like Rod Bray–was a Martinsville attorney, so Bray isn’t the first Morgan County resident to hold the job. As a side note, Cox’s one term in office wasn’t particularly noteworthy, but how he got there was: In a district convention to select a Democratic nominee, Cox and Joseph Moore deadlocked on a whopping 102 consecutive ballots before one Brown County delegate finally switched to give Cox a narrow victory.

And while Bray’s six years in office is less service time than his most recent predecessors (coincidentally, Robert Fair, Chip Edwards, Bob Garton, and David Long all had served exactly ten years when they were elected Pro Tem), historically it isn’t uncommon for a senator in his first or second term to be elected to the post. In fact, the first of the modern Pro Tems, Phil Gutman, had only served for two years when he won the post and transformed the office in 1970.

None of this is to take away from the impressive accomplishments of winning primaries or leadership elections, nor should it take away from the excitement of watching history unfold. It’s merely meant to underscore the notion that sometimes what’s old is new again, especially in politics. If nothing else, Indiana’s history is replete with great stories and the present often provides a great opportunity to learn about our interesting past.

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