INDIANAPOLIS — Once upon a time, Eric Miller cast a huge shadow over Indiana state government.
Miller, head of Advance America, the largest and most active advocacy organization for social conservatives in the state, had some legislators so terrified they wouldn’t even mention his name. They feared he would use his impressive network of evangelical supporters to flood the Statehouse if they crossed him.
His reputation for invincibility was so great that he presented a leadership challenge for me when I became the executive director of what is now the American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana, which often was on the other side of issues Miller cared about.
When I took that job, much of what I heard from ACLU staffers, supporters and allies was about Miller. Even though they didn’t care much for Miller’s ideology, they had tremendous, almost awed respect for his prowess as an activist and organizer.
They believed he could summon conservative Christians to the Statehouse by the tens of thousands. That he could raise millions of dollars. That he could make state government roll over and do tricks like a trained dog.
At times, they even made it sound like he could make the rivers run backward or defy gravity.
At one meeting, some supporters warned me again and again of what Miller was going to do.
Finally, I shook my head and laughed.
I told them I’d done quite a bit of reporting on Miller and his operation. I’d seen that he was smart, tough and very, very capable.
“But he’s just a man,” I said. “And any man can be beat.”
Any man also can make a mistake.
And Miller made a doozy when he ran for governor in 2004.
The race started out well for him. Miller joined what was initially a crowded field of more traditional candidates seeking the Republican nomination. There were several state legislators and a guy named Mitch Daniels, who was running for office for the first time in his life.
In that cluster, Miller might have won the primary as the more mainstream candidates split the moderate and business votes among themselves. But, one by one, the other candidates dropped out and left it a two-man race between Daniels and Miller.
Daniels crushed him by a 2-to-1 margin.
Actually, it was even worse than that.
Miller’s myth of invincibility relied on people guessing about just how much support he had. Once he ran, he quantified the number. Knowledgeable observers realized that the people who voted for him in the primary represented both Miller’s floor and his ceiling. They always would stand with him, but he wouldn’t attract many more than that.
He wasn’t an unstoppable force.
He was a man, and he could be beat.
While Miller remained a power in conservative and GOP circles, he wasn’t the power any longer. Instead of arguing that he provided the one path to success for Republicans, Miller had to fall back and contend that the party couldn’t win without him and his supporters.
Now, following his role in the disastrous debates over same-sex marriage and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, Miller may be forced to prove that Republicans can win with him. Next year, if the GOP loses what seemed early on like a sure-bet hold on the governor’s office, at least as many fingers will point in Miller’s direction as in Gov. Mike Pence’s. If Pence falls, Miller will fall even farther.
But that’s the nature of candidacies — from the right or left — fueled by little more than resentment.
Substitute the name Donald Trump for Eric Miller in the paragraphs above and what was history shifts to prophecy.
Trump has many traditional Republicans terrified he will lead the party to ruin.
Many political observers talk about the Donald as if he were a supernatural force, a candidate for whom the rules just don’t apply.
But, like Miller, his floor also is his ceiling. Once the field begins to narrow — and it will — to one or two other candidates, Trump will tumble every bit as far and as hard as Miller did.
He’s just a man.
Any man can makes mistakes.
And any man can be beat.
John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism, host of “No Limits” WFYI 90.1 Indianapolis and publisher of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.