Messer wants more empathetic GOP

Greg Nash

Rep. Luke Messer (R-Ind.) had scarcely finished one campaign when he immediately moved on to another.

ADVERTISEMENT
The morning after defeating Democrat Brad Bookout to win a first term representing Indiana’s 6th District, Messer began calling his fellow Republican victors to seek their vote to become president of their freshman class. Bolstered by the support of his two fellow Indiana freshmen, Reps. Susan Brooks and Jackie Walorski, Messer won the post two weeks later.

Besides giving him an immediate link to House Republican leadership, the post supplies Messer with a host of unique obligations. He arranges social gatherings with freshman House Democrats in an effort to narrow the wide partisan divide in the Capitol, and is also responsible for supplying freshman Republicans to serve as pro tem Speakers on the House floor, keeping the House running at odd hours. When he can’t find another member, Messer must do it himself.

An attorney by trade, Messer has been a jack of all trades within the Republican Party, holding a wide variety of political posts before finally reaching the House. He began with a brief stint as the press secretary for Representative Ed Bryant (R-Tenn.) and was later a legal counsel for three different Indiana representatives in the late ’90s. From 2001 to 2005 he was the executive director of the state’s Republican Party. He served in Indiana’s legislature for three years, and in 2008 co-chaired John McCain’s presidential campaign in Indiana.

Punctuating his efforts were two failed primary runs for Congress, in 2000 and 2010. He finally broke through in 2012 after previous officeholder Mike Pence departed to make a successful run for governor.

Unusually for a Congressman, when the television in Messer’s office is turned on it may be showing a children’s cartoon rather than the news or congressional proceedings. Like a handful of other members, Messer chose to move his family to Washington following his election, a decision that means occasionally bringing his children to the nation’s most prominent workplace.

Messer says the move has brought unexpected advantages beyond being able to spend more evenings with his family. Messer has often had family get-togethers with Democrats, including Rep. Steven Horsford (D-Nev.), who also moved their families to town, opportunities he thinks have built amity with the other side of the aisle.

“In the real world, people have to get along even if they disagree. Most Americans expect their leaders to do the same,” Messer told The Hill.

A sixth-generation Hoosier, Messer has an intense pride in his state. Besides “living and dying” by the results of Indiana Pacers and Indianapolis Colts games, Messer is also the author of a children’s book titled Hoosier Heart.

Messer said the “labor of love” was written during his days in the state assembly when he would visit elementary school classrooms to read to children. Unable to find any children’s books focused on Indiana, Messer decided to write one himself, answering the common question “What is a hoosier?”

The book travels across Indiana’s history and landscape to introduce reader’s to the states’ popular culture and most famous residents, with illustrations supplied by Messer’s wife.

Messer said the book did better than he expected, selling more than 6,000 copies.

“Many political memoirs don’t sell that many!” he said with a laugh. Messer hopes to someday write another book aimed at an adult audience.

Messer was raised by a single mother and worked a wide array of jobs to get through college. This economically difficult upbringing influences both his policy interests and his positions.

He is particularly involved with education policy. While in the Indiana legislature, he sponsored a law making it more difficult for Indiana high school students to drop out prior to their 18th birthday.

After his 2010 primary defeat he was president and CEO of School Choice Indiana, a school voucher advocacy group. In that role, he contributed to passage of one of the nation’s most expansive voucher programs.

Asked how the party could appeal more to individuals like single mothers, who vote heavily Democratic, Messer said Republicans need to improve their emotional resonance with voters.

“I think Republicans have to do a better job in both word and deed,” Messer said. “I think a large part of our challenges with single mother constituencies is that we sound like meanies when we talk. At times our words don’t match our intentions.”

Messer points toward national Republican statements on education as one example where rhetoric can cause the party to stumble. National Republicans, he said, have often pushed for the abolition of the Department of Education.

“As a constitutionalist, I would concede that it’s not clear where the Department of Education emerges from the Constitution. Yet it’s not a practical reality that the Department of Education can be abolished, and for most Americans today, [suggesting that it should be] sounds like we don’t care about education.”

Instead of “pounding the table” to push an absolute vision on education and other issues, Messer said Republicans should focus on improving and reforming entrenched bureaucracies and making a better emotional case for conservative principles as a way to help people in their day-to-day lives.

“Too often we sound like the adults on Charlie Brown,” he said, referencing the indecipherable babble of schoolteachers in the old children’s cartoon.

Messer explains his political approach by hearkening back to his days at the executive director of Indiana’s Republicans. In the early 2000s, despite the state’s Republican tilt at the national level, Indiana had a Democratic House and voted in Democratic governors for four consecutive terms.

Messer said it was decisive reform, not merely holding a conservative line, that allowed the party to reassert control of the state and make it into a leading example of innovative Republican governance.

“What we found was, the key to moving our party forward was to be the party of solutions to the problems families are facing in their lives,” Messer said. “At its best, politics is about delivering results, not winning elections.”

Messer expressed hope that Congress would be able to pass meaningful immigration reform in the next four months before the legislative window is closed by the midterm elections.

Messer said he does not want to be in Congress “forever,” but that he could see himself serving 10 to 12 years if the voters of Indiana oblige.