While Republicans on the national scene take their lumps over their role in the federal government shutdown, Lake County conservatives are expressing optimism for a strengthening foothold in local politics.
To the representatives of this "new" Lake County GOP, the reasons for optimism are tangible:
* For the first time in years, two Republican Lake County Statehouse representatives just completed their freshman legislative terms, turning heads of the downstate Republican leadership with a successful lifting of a stifling tax freeze and other measures.
* A party long characterized by its aging members now has a county GOP Young Republican member who heads the state Young Republicans and has taken a role with the national organization.
* In the upcoming 2016 general election, redrawn political district boundaries in south Lake County give the GOP the best chance it's had in decades of winning a county commissioner's seat.
* County Republican leaders have harnessed the help of marquee party names, including the architect of the George W. Bush presidential campaign, Karl Rove. Rove is slated to be the keynote speaker at the Lake GOP's Lincoln Day Dinner in February, one of the party's key fundraisers.
* Members of the local GOP are enjoying crossover support from some maverick Lake County Democrats, particularly in their opposition to the recently passed local option income tax that began hitting taxpayers' wallets this month.
Hammond Mayor Thomas McDermott Jr., the county Democratic Party chairman, said some of the GOP energy is false optimism spurred by what he calls an anomaly 2010 Republican win of the county assessor's office, when the late Hank Adams beat Democrat Carole Ann Seaton.
But even Lake County's top Democrat concedes Republicans are poised for some success in at least one major county office in upcoming elections.
Building on momentum?
Gathered last weekend at their 2013 Reagan Breakfast fundraising event in Merrillville's Croatian Center, a common topic drifted table to table among the Lake GOP faithful.
It was a discussion of admiration and mourning. Lake County Assessor Hank Adams — the first Republican in 50 years to win countywide office back in 2010 — had just stepped down from his position following a long battle with cancer. A day after the breakfast, Adams died.
But region and state Republican leaders believe they can build off the momentum of Adams' legacy — even if regaining the assessor's seat in next year's election is a long shot in what is still a Democratic stronghold.
Though Adams achieved more accurate property assessments and rid the office of historic backlogs, it was the fallibility of his Democratic opponent that most political observers believe tipped the election in his favor. Democrat nominee Seaton was embroiled in a state citizenship scandal that bled right into the election.
Still, the recent breakfast gathering of Lake County Republicans included dozens of comments about Hank's coup in winning the office and reforming it.
State GOP Chairman Tim Berry, who was the breakfast's keynote speaker, praised the party unity and organization that led to Adams' victory.
GOP county Chairman Dan Dernulc, of Highland and who also serves on the Lake County Council, credited solid campaign work by his predecessor, former Lake County GOP Chairwoman Kim Krull, with steering a strong campaign effort for Adams.
"It really seems that Hank Adams' 2010 success added a lot of fire to the Lake County organization," said Indiana GOP spokesman and Schererville native Pete Seat. "It gets a lot of the local Republicans saying, 'We can do this.'"
Lake County Democratic Party Chairman McDermott said Republicans can be as optimistic as they like, but he all-but-promised his party would take back the assessor seat in the next election.
Entrenched Democratic candidates, including Lake County Councilman Jerome Prince, are poised to run for the office, McDermott said.
Predicted GOP success
But even McDermott, known for his vocal confidence, predicts the GOP will be successful in seizing a long-held Democratic county commissioner's seat in 2016.
And that's without even knowing the candidates for the GOP nomination.
Since perennial Democratic Commissioner Gerry Scheub won the 2nd District in south Lake County, the district boundaries have been redrawn, tipping the scales in favor of whomever the GOP puts in the race, McDermott said.
Heavily Democratic Merrillville will no longer be in Scheub's old district, and the towns of Munster and Dyer —with their more conservative voting tendencies — are now part of the district.
Lake County GOP Chairman Dernulc is confident 2016 will usher in at least one Republican member on the county's three-member executive Board of Commissioners, a group that holds veto power over County Council fiscal actions.
Growing downstate voice
Dernulc said local GOP fortunes also have improved with the 2012 election of Schererville Republican Hal Slager and Lowell Republican Rick Niemeyer to the Indiana House of Representatives.
The pair just finished their freshman terms in Indianapolis, helping to usher in a thawing of a longtime freeze on the county's property tax levy.
Slager also helped push through legislation to reform and curb spending practices in Calumet Township, something local Griffith Republicans previously had struggled to achieve without a region voice in Indianapolis.
Dernulc said Slager and Niemeyer have helped show the party's downstate leaders that effective Republicans are beginning to thrive in Lake County's Democratic powerhouse.
That's particularly helpful in pushing agendas and achieving successful legislation in a Republican-controlled Statehouse and governor's office, he said.
Indiana GOP Chairman Tim Berry concurs.
"Having two Lake County Republican members in the House — when the area previously has had none — has meant a great deal," Berry said. "Hal and Rick bring a great sense of teamwork to their offices, and that brings respect from the rest of the state party."
Several county GOP members also note the growing presence of youth in the local party as a position of strength.
They credit a member of that youth movement, Schererville's Michael Neal, 26, with helping foster new excitement in the party's future.
In addition to helping organize local campaigns through his leading role in the Lake County Young Republicans, Neal serves as state chairman of the Indiana Federation of Young Republicans.
He also has taken on a national party role as Midwestern vice chairman for the Young Republicans National Federation.
A glance at Neal's Facebook page in the past couple of months showed him circling the country to aid in GOP causes and campaigns elsewhere and to build respect for the local party.
On Friday, a post showed him heading to Virginia to aid in the campaign of GOP gubernatorial candidate and current Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli.
"Things like that give the party an opportunity to be a different choice for folks," Dernulc said.