In a southern Indiana banquet room last week, Republicans dined on pork chops, listened to local politicians, then cast an informal vote in a race on all their minds: next year’s re-election bid by six-term Senator Richard Lugar, their party’s senior-most member of Congress.
Lugar lost the Pike County Republican straw poll, with 11 votes to 42 for primary challenger Richard Mourdock, the state treasurer. Mourdock, who is courting support from Tea Party activists, was the keynote speaker at the April 21 dinner. Lugar was on a family vacation on Sanibel Island, Florida.
At this point, Lugar “has to be regarded as the underdog,” and his decision to take time off during Congress’s April recess rather than campaign is surprising, said Stu Rothenberg, editor of the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report. “It seems to reflect what I see as a failure to understand the environment out there, and possibly his unwillingness to see the difficult political shape that he’s in.”
The Pike County results provide a glimpse of the challenge that Lugar, 79, faces from the influence of anti-government, anti-tax Tea Party supporters. More than a year before the primary, Mourdock, 59, said he’s also backed by a majority of Indiana’s 92 Republican county chairmen.
Lugar, who declined to be interviewed, has a decades-long connection with voters who appreciate his reputation for taking principled stands, and he is in a position to win re-election, said David Willkie, his campaign’s political director. County party chiefs are “one group of note” in a state with more than 6 million residents, and local straw polls aren’t a sound gauge of voter sentiment, he said.
As for Lugar’s decision to spend time in Florida, Willkie said the senator has made other recent trips to Indiana, and the vacation offered him a chance to “recharge the batteries” before next May’s primary.
“Certainly he has the fire in the belly” and still thinks he has big contributions to make in the Senate, Willkie said.
The primary challenge Lugar confronts underscores how Republican politics have changed. The elder statesman, and top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, didn’t have a major-party opponent in his last election in 2006, when tenure and an ability to work across party lines were seen as assets. He won his three previous general elections with about two-thirds of the vote.
In a new era that stresses confrontation over compromise, Lugar is a top target of a Tea Party movement that last year ousted three-term Utah Senator Robert Bennett and fielded a winning Republican primary opponent to Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski.
The Tea Party activists wanting to oust Lugar are unhappy about his support for the $700 billion financial bailout passed in 2008, his ability to shepherd nuclear arms treaties through the Senate, and his votes in favor of President Barack Obama’s two Supreme Court nominees.
A Rhodes scholar and former Indianapolis mayor who first won his Senate seat in 1976, Lugar is tied with Orrin Hatch of Utah as the Senate’s longest-serving Republicans.
On the Foreign Relations Committee, he’s made nuclear nonproliferation a hallmark, and was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2000 for his work with former Georgia Democratic Senator Sam Nunn to create a program to help countries of the former Soviet Union dispose of weapons of mass destruction. Lugar raised concerns about the war in Iraq, and worked with Democrats to hold dozens of oversight hearings of the Bush administration’s war effort.
‘Hoosier Gold Standard’
“He’s been the Hoosier gold standard,” said Ed Feigenbaum, who tracks state politics for the Indiana Legislative Insight newsletter in Noblesville, Indiana. “He’s represented the state well for many decades, and the only real quarrel some people seem to have with him is they don’t perceive him as being conservative enough today.”
Lugar has emphasized some differences with Democrats in recent weeks, demanding that Obama detail U.S. objectives in the military intervention in Libya and voting in favor of a House-passed bill to cut spending by $61 billion this fiscal year.
Still, he largely stands by his past positions and has shown flashes of annoyance with critics. In February, he said Tea Partiers should “get real” about their opposition to a new strategic arms reduction treaty with Russia he helped steer through the Senate last year during an interview with an Indiana CBS affiliate.
In a January interview with U.S. News & World Report, Lugar said many Tea Party members “are unhappy about life in America and they want to express themselves.” Their concerns, though, often involve “sort of large cliché titles,” and “they are not able to articulate all the specifics,” he said.
With a difficult Republican primary for the incumbent, Democrats see opportunity. Third-term Democratic Representative Joe Donnelly is considering a bid.
Mourdock poses a serious challenge in the Republican primary because he “has a foot planted in the establishment and the insurgent camps in the Republican Party in Indiana,” Feigenbaum said.
A coal-company geologist who in November won re-election as state treasurer, Mourdock gained attention when he sued to block Chrysler LLC’s bankruptcy reorganization plan in 2009 on behalf of Indiana pension funds that lost money in the automaker’s government-backed bailout. Mourdock appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled against the funds -- costing Indiana taxpayers $2 million in legal fees.
With Lugar often in Washington, Mourdock barnstorms the state. On April 21, he spoke at a Kiwanis Club luncheon in Evansville and met with College Republicans at the University of Evansville before heading to Pike County’s Lincoln Day event -- his 32nd appearance this year at a county party dinner.
Lugar is scheduled to make his second and third such appearances before Greene County and Clay County Republicans on April 29 and April 30. He gives a commencement address on April 30 at Vincennes University in Vincennes, Indiana. In Florida, Lugar held two fundraisers with other vacationing Hoosiers, said his spokesman, Mark Helmke.
Mourdock said he’s taking on the senator because Lugar’s policies are out of kilter with a party increasingly focused on shrinking the size of government.
“Senator Lugar’s been a great senator for his time, but I think we’re in the 21st century,” he said in an interview. “There needs to be attention paid to a different set of priorities and a more consistently conservative set of values.”
According to National Journal ratings, Lugar’s voting record in 1988 was seen as reflecting conservative views on 81 percent of economic issues, 70 percent of social measures and 66 percent of foreign policy votes. Two decades later, his 2008 conservative ratings were 70 percent on the economy, 57 percent on social issues and 56 percent on foreign policy.
Lugar has a fundraising advantage, taking in $974,000 and reporting $3 million cash on hand in the quarter ended March 31. Mourdock raised $163,000 and had $122,000 left to spend.
The senator is being targeted by out-of-state groups. Staff members of FreedomWorks, a Washington-based group that is mobilizing Tea Party organizations, have visited the state three times to plot Lugar’s defeat. The National Republican Trust PAC, which favors limited government, endorsed Mourdock and plans to pour money into the race. Chris Chocola, the president of the conservative Club for Growth, on April 19 said Lugar should retire.
“Some of the antagonism he’s demonstrated to the Tea Party movement reflect somebody who’s not attuned to the changing times,” said Sal Russo, chief strategist for the Tea Party Express. Lugar and Senator Olympia Snowe of Maine are the group’s top two Republican targets in 2012, he said.
Peter Emigh, the Republican chairman in Hamilton County, Indiana, said Lugar will be tough to beat.
“What’s the mother’s milk in politics? Money,” said Emigh, who hasn’t endorsed anyone. “Who’s got the name recognition? Lugar.”
The party chairman in Fulton County, Chad Hartzler, said some of Lugar’s recent votes are of concern and it may be time for a change. “We need a senator who reflects the values of Indiana voters,” Hartzler said.