Sitting in a strip-mall campaign office with copies of checks from Sarah Palin and Herman Cain tacked on the wall, Indiana Treasurer Richard Mourdock calls his contest with Senator Richard Lugar a battle for the “heart and soul of the Republican Party in the Senate.”
Lugar, a six-term senator and ranking Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee, embodies a passing generation of leaders distinguished for expertise and an ability to negotiate with the other party. While he has been one of Indiana’s most popular political figures, a poll released today shows he’s in danger of losing the Republican primary on May 8.
Mourdock portrays the incumbent as having compromised too much with Democrats and President Barack Obama. He tells voters it’s time for a Republican senator who will address the federal debt and refuse to budge on conservative principles.
“Whether or not we’re going to have the ‘go along to get along’ or the people that are going to really fight for the conservative point of view is what this campaign is about,” Mourdock, 60, said in an interview.
Mourdock led Lugar, 48 percent to 38 percent, in the poll by Howey Politics Indiana and DePauw University. The survey of 700 likely Republican and independent voters was conducted April 30 and May 1 and had an error margin of plus-or-minus 3.7 percentage points.
“U.S. Senator Richard G. Lugar’s iconic career of elected public service appears to be in great jeopardy,” Brian Howey, editor and publisher of Howey Politics Indiana, said in a posting on his website today.
Lugar, 80, hasn’t faced such a primary challenge since he joined the Senate 35 years ago. Mourdock has the backing of the anti-tax Tea Party and national figures such as Palin, the 2008 Republican vice presidential nominee, and Cain, a former presidential candidate.
The outcome may have implications for the direction of the Republican Party, said Brian Vargus, a political science professor at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis.
The party has become more socially conservative during the past three decades. Since the 2010 midterm elections, when Republicans regained control of the U.S. House, that wing of the party has gained even greater strength as moderates and independents become more of a minority, Vargus said.
‘Must Be Dealt With’
“What they’re basically trying to send is a very simple message, and that is that they must be dealt with, they must be listened to, that the party has to take into consideration who they are and what they stand for,” he said.
Lugar’s campaign will be working over the weekend “to take this primary back” by persuading a handful of Mourdock voters in each of Indiana’s 5,000 precincts to back the incumbent instead, the senator’s spokesman Andy Fisher said in an e-mail.
The campaign also will seek to turn out voters who have supported Lugar in general elections but haven’t participated in primaries, Fisher said. Indiana has an open primary system, allowing voters of any party to request a Republican ballot.
At a news conference today, Lugar asked Indiana residents of any political party who want him to remain in office to “come out immediately, as fast as you can” to support him, according to the Indianapolis Star’s website.
“I believe that right now if a majority of Hoosiers were to vote in an election, that is all Hoosiers regardless of party -- Republicans, Democrats, independents, I would win,” Lugar said, according to the newspaper. “I want everybody in the state to vote for me on Tuesday.”
The winner of Tuesday’s primary will face Democratic U.S. Representative Joe Donnelly in November.
Lugar says he’s best positioned to help Republicans take control of the Senate and that he can get more done than a freshman with a “my way or the highway” attitude.
“I have the temerity actually to talk to Democrats on occasion,” he told reporters May 2 after touring Batesville Tool & Die, a stamping plant for automotive parts, in southeastern Indiana. Without a willingness to compromise, “in terms of representation of this state, or the moving of any policy with regard to this country, your effect will be zero,” he said.
Lugar has been a supporter of Indiana businesses, said Jody Fledderman, president and chief executive officer of Batesville Tool & Die. Indiana ranked sixth among all states in its economic recovery in the fourth quarter of 2011 compared with the previous year, according to the Bloomberg Economic Evaluation of States.
‘Brink of Bankruptcy’
Mourdock, a former coal-company geologist who was re-elected state treasurer in 2010 with 62 percent of the vote, said bipartisanship has taken the U.S. to the “brink of bankruptcy.” Instead of working with Democrats, he said, Republicans must hold to their principles to capture the White House and secure majorities in Congress to rein in the debt.
Conservatives no longer will vote for candidates just because they have an “R” after their name, said Monica Boyer, co-chairwoman of Hoosiers for a Conservative Senate, a coalition of 55 Tea Party groups.
The coalition is unhappy with Lugar’s record, including his votes for Obama’s two U.S. Supreme Court nominees, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, his support for bailouts and for legislation that would allow people brought to the U.S. illegally before age 16 to gain legal residency under certain conditions.
‘Not a Conservative Label’
“You can put a label on that, but it’s certainly not a conservative label,” Boyer, 36, a secretary from Warsaw, Indiana, said in a telephone interview.
While Lugar said he “categorically disagrees,” this is a “surly” environment for incumbents and Mourdock is making the case that the veteran lawmaker’s age and tenure have left him out of touch, said Howey of Howey Politics Indiana.
“This part of the country has lost faith in Washington, and I think that this race is more of a referendum on Richard Lugar,” Howey said.
Mourdock claims the support of most of Indiana’s 92 Republican county chairmen. Craig Dunn, chairman of the Howard County Republican Party, once a “dyed-in-the-wool” Lugar backer, was among the first to endorse the treasurer.
Lugar “got so embroiled with the foreign relations work that the nuts-and-bolts work of a senator kind of went by the wayside,” said Dunn, 55, an investment adviser from Kokomo. “He took us for granted, and now we’re asking for a divorce.”
Dunn said the perception of Lugar being out of touch was reinforced by a challenge to his state residency. A Democratic-controlled county elections board ruled in March that he was ineligible to vote in his home precinct because he and his wife registered using the Indianapolis address of a home he sold in 1977. A settlement was reached allowing Lugar to change his voter registration to a family farm in Indiana.
Criticism of Lugar has been “blown out of proportion,” and the nation needs senators like him willing to reach across the aisle, said Linda Barber, 61, a self-employed life coach and massage therapist from Fishers in suburban Indianapolis.
“He’s just a man that’s bipartisan, and I think that’s good,” Barber said while grocery shopping.
Lugar has the support of two independent committees, the Indiana Values super-PAC -- led by a former chief of staff --and Hoosiers for Economic Growth and Jobs. He’s been targeted by attack ads financed by the super-PAC of FreedomWorks, which supports the Tea Party movement, and a group that advocates smaller government, the Club for Growth.
Lugar said winning the primary would show that Hoosiers “want somebody who is a fighter for their interests, who has been effective as a member of the Senate, both domestically and worldwide.”
Mourdock said voters want to see a Republican “who’s maybe less a statesman and more of a fighter.”