I ran into Mark Souder at the Fort Wayne City-County Building just days before the 1994 Republican 4th CD primary. I didn’t know him very well. I asked him about his prospects. What followed was about a seven-minute instant analysis, going down to a granular, precinct level. On Election Night, he won a crowded primary, and as I monitored returns, it became quite evident that Mark Souder really did know what he was talking about.
Souder died on Monday at age 72 after a nine-month battle with pancreatic cancer. It ended nearly half a century of conservative activism that included his staff work for congressman and Sen. Dan Coats, 15 years as a congressman, and, after he abruptly resigned for an extramarital affair, his frequent columns for Howey Politics Indiana.
He would join the “Gingrich Revolution” class of 1994 that ended a 40-year Democratic majority.
According to John Gizzi of Newsmax, “Rep. Souder compiled a lifetime rating of 89.83% with the American Conservative Union. He freely spoke of his Christian faith and study of the Bible as lodestars of his philosophy, saying ‘on abortion, there’s really not much room to compromise.’”
He traced his conservatism back to President Calvin Coolidge, was emboldened by the 1964 conservative presidential nominee Barry Goldwater and turned that energy to help form conservative student groups at IPFW, IU and Notre Dame. He was energized by the Reagan Revolution in 1980.
Longtime Republican operative Jim Pfaff called Souder “the most skilled political strategist Indiana ever had. This man – schooled in the tradition of another great Hoosier, [onetime Indianapolis News editor and conservative icon] M. Stanton Evans – understood politics and policy better than just about anyone.”
Once in Congress, he ardently supported Speaker Gingrich’s “Contract With America.” He said in December 1994, “You have a bunch of freshman that are coming in focused on the contract, and a group of House leadership who are very focused on the contract but have this tendency to wander off.” A few years later, he helped overthrown the speaker
As he resigned, Souder said, “We are a committed family. But the error is mine, and I should bear the responsibility.” He pledged to earn back the trust of his family and community “and renewing my walk with the Lord.”
A few years later, I contacted Souder, urging him to begin writing a column. “Redemption,” I explained, “is a powerful thing.”
His final column came in August following the stunning Kansas constitutional referendum on abortion, titled, “The Road to Kansas.”
Here, Souder grappled with his own ideological preferences and the political realities: “It isn’t about truth – all babies are human – but a question of practical politics right now. Stand on the high ground of principle with a clear conscience, and lose, or get some progress in reducing abortions. I confess to being undecided because life is a principle. But I am both an ideological, Christian conservative and someone who understands how to win elections. We have lost the middle, especially on rape/incest because of our ‘holy huddles’ and hubris.’”
“In 1970 Vice President Spiro Agnew campaigned in Indiana and repeatedly said like Col. Travis at the Alamo, ‘Everybody with us come on this side of the line, everybody against us go to the other side.’ I remember saying: ‘I sure hope they counted right.’”
As Donald Trump surfaced in 2015 for the presidential race, Souder’s analysis was prescient. On Feb. 11, 2016: “Donald Trump has swelled the audiences. People want to see fights, like wrecks at the Indianapolis 500 or fisticuffs at hockey games, and Trump encouraged it.”
On March 10, 2016: “American’s founding fathers didn’t want America to become France; no king, no mob rule, and no Napoleon. Trump, basically, wants to use mobs to make him something between a king and Napoleon.”
By late summer 2016, Souder observed, “While this country will likely survive any president, Trump represents a threat far beyond what we faced even under (President Andrew) Jackson or Obama. As for my fellow Republicans still with Trump, if you hold your nose too long you might die of asphyxiation. He is endangering far more than just the presidential campaign.”
And, on Jan. 7, 2021, the day after the U.S. Capitol insurrection, Souder wrote: “Today I grieve for our nation. I am saddened that this great nation has been humiliated in front of the world, in this case by Trump advocates who call themselves ‘conservative Republicans.’ It was so awfully ironic that their hats, shirts and slogans said ‘Make American Great Again’ as they trashed it verbally and then violently. This foundation was built upon an assumption that people will resolve differences peacefully. As John Adams said, it requires a people with moral grounding. That was the foundation. Otherwise, what you get is what happened this week: Mobs that seek to impose their authoritarian will upon everyone else.
“The failure of many Republican leaders to speak out against President Trump showed they did not understand the risk of how far this man would go or the dangers of someone unhinged from fundamental respect for anything except raw power for personal benefit.
“Conservatism, real conservatism, will survive,” Souder continued. “The Republican Party, if it purges itself, might survive too, but it will have a more difficult struggle. It certainly can never win again as Trump’s personal playground.”
The columnist is publisher of Howey Politics Indiana at www.howeypolitics.com.