Indiana Republican primary voters will decide today whether to end the U.S. Senate career of Richard Lugar in a race that put him on the defensive over his 35 years in office and occasional compromises with Democrats.
Lugar met yesterday with farmers in rural Otterbain before campaign stops in three cities north and west of Indianapolis, where he was mayor before entering the Senate in 1977. A poll released May 4 showed his challenger, Indiana state Treasurer Richard Mourdock, leading by 10 percentage points among likely Republican voters. Hours later, Lugar took the unusual step of openly appealing to other voters to turn out to aid him.
“If there’s a path to victory for Lugar, it is getting independents and Democrats out to vote,” said Jennifer Duffy, Senate editor on the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. “It’s a pretty small needle to thread.”
No Republican U.S. senator who served as long as the six-term Lugar has been denied renomination. Two Democratic senators, Kenneth McKellar of Tennessee in 1952 and Ellison Smith of South Carolina in 1944, lost primaries as they sought seventh terms.
Although Lugar, 80, appeared the likely victor just a few months ago, the race became part of a fight between the Republican Party’s conservative and centrist wings. The campaigns and outside groups spent money on an avalanche of television attack ads in the state’s three top media markets of Indianapolis, Fort Wayne and South Bend.
Outside groups spent almost $4.6 million supporting or opposing Lugar and Mourdock, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics. No other 2012 race has attracted that level of outside spending except the presidential election, which has generated $95 million in spending by super-political action committees and other independent groups, the center’s data show.
Lugar, the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, is under fire for supporting the $700 billion financial bailout passed in 2008, shepherding nuclear arms treaties through the Senate and voting for President Barack Obama’s two Supreme Court nominees.
The primary challenge underscores how Republican politics have changed. Lugar didn’t have a major-party opponent in his last election in 2006, when seniority 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.
Club for Growth
Mourdock, 60, is backed by FreedomWorks, which aids the Tea Party movement, and the small-government group Club for Growth. Both groups have flooded the airwaves with attack ads. He was endorsed by Tea Party favorites Sarah Palin, the 2008 vice presidential nominee, and Republican representative and former presidential candidate Michele Bachmann of Minnesota.
Last week, Mourdock won the endorsement of anti-tax activist Grover Norquist after he signed a pledge by Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform that, if elected, he will never vote to raise taxes. Although most Republican senators have signed the pledge, Lugar has declined, arguing against the value of such ironclad promises.
Today’s vote will help show whether the Tea Party movement retains the clout it had in the 2010 midterm elections. That year, Republican Senators Robert Bennett of Utah and Senator Lisa Murkowski lost their party nominations to candidates pushing more aggressively for small government. Murkowski then ran as an independent and won re-election against Republican nominee Joe Miller. Bennett was replaced in the Senate by Mike Lee, a Tea Party-backed Republican.
Control of Senate
Enough voters supported small-government candidates to help the Republicans take control of the House in 2010. In Senate races, Tea Party candidates in Nevada, Colorado and Delaware were defeated by Democrats, who kept control of that chamber.
The outcome of Lugar’s race holds some risk of a similar outcome. U.S. Representative Joe Donnelly, an Indiana Democrat and member of the centrist Blue Dog coalition, will run against the winner of today’s primary. Democrats are convinced that Mourdock would be easier to beat than Lugar.
Lugar’s spokesman, Andy Fisher, said the veteran lawmaker’s campaign was making a massive get-out-the vote drive and could still win. He said the campaign’s contacts with voters suggest that new primary voters are prepared to turn out to support him.
‘Not Outside the Realm’
“There are a lot of people who have not voted in primaries in the past, but have supported Senator Lugar in the fall, who say they’re going to vote in the primary,” Fisher said.
Ed Feigenbaum, an analyst who tracks state politics, said Lugar is the underdog although “it’s not outside the realm of the possible” that he could win the nomination.
Still, Feigenbaum said, Lugar has had setbacks, including a challenge to his state residency amid criticism that he hasn’t spent enough time in Indiana.
A Democratic-controlled county elections board ruled in March that Lugar 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. Lugar reached a settlement allowing him to change his voter registration address to a family farm in Indiana.
Feigenbaum said Lugar initially didn’t respond aggressively enough to Mourdock’s attacks. Then Lugar engaged in attacks ads that went against his above-the-fray image and created confusion by criticizing Mourdock on a number of issues, he said.
“Lugar and his people have had a political deaf ear toward this whole campaign,” said Feigenbaum, editor of the nonpartisan Indiana Legislative Insight newsletter in Noblesville.