After a lifetime of political good fortune in Indiana, Senator Richard Lugar can’t catch a break. He is facing what Politico calls his “toughest reelection campaign in decades,” and with the May 8 GOP primary looming, he desperately needs to repair relations with party conservatives.
In few states is the party base as certifiably conservative as in Indiana. One poll shows 70 percent of the state’s Republicans respect the Tea Party—and few issues raise the ire of these party activists like congressional earmarks in spending bills.
So what does Lugar do? Three months before the primary, when the Senate had a chance to ban this symbol of big-government malfeasance, Lugar joined with Harry Reid in a key Senate vote to save earmarking.
Lugar’s primary foe, Indiana treasurer Richard Mourdock, immediately hit statewide television with ads that not only decried the Senate vote but also exposed Lugar’s support over the years for such infamous earmarks as Alaska’s bridge to nowhere, a rainforest for Iowa, and a teapot museum for North Carolina. “Dick Lugar won’t vote to end wasteful spending and earmarks. I will,” Mourdock declared.
A couple of days later Mourdock was back on television holding a news conference in front of the Indianapolis home Lugar lists as his official voting address—despite the fact that he sold the house 35 years ago and has lived in McLean, Virginia, ever since. (Lugar even lists the old address on his driver’s license.)
Lugar’s spokesman compounded the political damage when he sought to justify Lugar’s not having a residence back home in Indiana: “It’s just like the United States military. If you’re . . . in service to this country and you’re overseas, you keep your last place of residence.” One newspaper mocked the response with the headline: “Lugar ‘in defense’ of country from Virginia.”
In another year all this might be dismissed as political gamesmanship. Indiana officials insist that legally Lugar doesn’t have to have an actual Hoosier residence to represent the state in the Senate. But it was Lugar’s bad luck to have this spotlight fall on him just days after Indiana’s secretary of state had to resign, having been convicted on a felony charge of falsifying his voting address.
Lugar even drew bad press when he fired his longtime pollster as word spread in political circles that his hard reelect numbers hover below 40—a result that’s usually taken as a death rattle for an incumbent facing serious primary opposition.
But it was the earmark vote that brought the wrath of the Club for Growth down on Lugar. The group’s president, Chris Chocola, penned an article for National Review condemning Lugar’s voting record and proclaiming the club’s support for Mourdock. “ ‘Earmarks’ . . . are a ‘gateway drug’ to corruption and bigger government in Washington,” wrote Chocola, a former Indiana congressman who once would have been reluctant to take on Lugar.
Meanwhile, the list of organizations that have endorsed Mourdock reads like a Who’s Who of American conservatism. But arguably the biggest shoe is about to drop with the expectation that the National Rifle Association will shortly come out for Mourdock. “Dick Lugar is the single most anti-gun Republican in the U.S. Senate,” declares NRA president David Keene.
Lugar is widely seen as enjoying a huge financial advantage over Mourdock, having raised a $4 million campaign treasury for his reelection, compared with the $1.3 million raised by Mourdock. But in the era of super-PACs, groups like the Club for Growth and the NRA could help even the score. Mourdock’s pollster, the respected John McLaughlin, says the challenger already holds a clear advantage over Lugar among Republicans who know the records of the two candidates.
Mourdock is a geologist by profession who became a successful businessman before turning to his first love, issue-oriented politics. Over the years he has become a regular on the Indiana Republican speaking circuit, and in 2010 he won reelection as state treasurer with 62 percent of the vote, the only treasurer in memory to lead the GOP ticket. Mourdock had drawn national attention in 2009 by filing suit to block Obama’s unprecedented bailout of Chrysler, which gave preference to UAW workers over bondholders, including an Indiana state police pension fund. Federal courts allowed the bailout to proceed.
Lugar, the former chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, is an honored figure in Washington, a favorite of the foreign policy establishment, but Mourdock is challenging that foreign policy record, charging Lugar “has been among the senators least friendly to the state of Israel.” He condemns Lugar’s support for Israel’s returning to its pre-1967 borders and Lugar’s past votes against sanctions aimed at Iran and its supporters.
Lugar is not without potent political assets. Mitch Daniels, the extraordinarily popular governor, is a long-time protégé, whose first political job was as an intern for then Indianapolis mayor Dick Lugar. He remains firmly behind the man he went on to serve at the head of his Senate staff.
More than four decades ago network anchors made Lugar famous when they dubbed him President Nixon’s favorite mayor. Unfortunately for Lugar, in recent years he has been dubbed “Obama’s favorite Republican”—photos of Lugar were even used in Obama presidential campaign ads in Indiana—and that will provide red meat for Mourdock in the primary campaign.
Herein lies the final piece of ill fortune hanging over Lugar this year. A former top aide to a Republican establishment senator privately explains the politics of the 2012 primary: “Lugar is 80 years old—and he looks and acts like he is 80 years old. If the threat of the Mourdock challenge forces Lugar to campaign extensively in Indiana, he could be toast.”
Kenneth Y. Tomlinson is a former editor in chief of Reader’s Digest.