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Lugar’s New Foes

From Nixon’s favorite mayor to Obama’s favorite Republican.

Feb 28, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 23 • By KENNETH Y. TOMLINSON
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Back when he was running for president, Barack Obama cited his relationship with Senator Richard Lugar so often that Lugar came to be known in the political press as “Obama’s favorite Republican.” Photos of Lugar even appeared in campaign ads that helped Obama (narrowly) carry Indiana.

After the election, the relationship continued to bear fruit for the White House. Lugar was one of the first Republican senators to endorse the president’s choice of Sonia Sotomayor for the Supreme Court. Lugar was one of only five Senate Republicans to vote to confirm Elena Kagan.

And at the White House press conference called in December to celebrate Senate ratification of the START treaty, Obama explained, “I just got off the phone with Dick Lugar .  .  . and I told him how much I appreciated the work he had done.”

In Washington, Lugar is viewed as an Indiana political icon. He is the only senator from the state ever to win election to a fourth term. Next year, as he celebrates his 80th birthday, he will have served six terms in the Senate.

In a recent New York Times profile, however, the paper warned that Lugar is “standing against his party on a number of significant issues at a politically dangerous time to do so.” Wrote the Times:

In the heat of the post-election lame-duck session, he is defying his party on an earmark ban [and] a bill that would create a path to citizenship for some illegal immigrants. .  .  . He even declined to sign a brief supporting state lawsuits against President Obama’s health care law because he saw it as political posturing.

Back in Indiana, during those days before Christmas, state treasurer Richard Mourdock was calling GOP county chairmen asking them to commit to his candidacy if he challenges Lugar in next May’s Indiana primary.

Mourdock, a geologist by training, is a successful businessman who loves issue-oriented politics and enjoys challenges. A decade ago, at 49, he started running marathons, eventually realizing his goal to run Boston. The treasurer’s office is not normally considered a path to the U.S. Senate, but last November Mourdock won reelection with 62 percent of the vote—the first treasurer in memory to lead the Republican ticket in Indiana. His performance easily bested that of Dan Coats, who won Indiana’s other Senate seat with 55 percent.

As Mourdock began his calls to local Republican leaders, he figured that if 30 percent of county chairmen were willing to support him, he would be encouraged. He reached that total early the second day.

Soon he commissioned Wilson Research Strategies to poll likely Republican voters on the Senate race. Only 52 percent said they would vote for Lugar if the primary were held today—a dangerously low figure for a longtime incumbent. But when these likely voters were read a list of Lugar’s recent political positions, his total fell to 29 percent. On the measure that pollsters call “hard reelect,” only 31 percent said they would vote for Lugar “regardless of who ran against him.”

Mourdock is slated to announce his candidacy for the Senate on February 22, and sources insist he will surprise observers with the extent of his support—including from Republican leaders in populous counties. Says one party pro, “No one has spoken to more Indiana Lincoln Day dinners than Richard Mourdock.”

Lugar is giving every indication he will run for a seventh term—in January he showed a serious spike in fundraising—even though leaders of some 70 Indiana Tea Party organizations signed a letter last month urging him to retire at the end of this term.

The primary is a long time away—scheduled for May 8, 2012—and a host of political factors could make this campaign one of the most fascinating in the country. 

There is the possible presidential bid of popular Indiana governor Mitch Daniels, who was known early in his career as a Lugar protégé. Those close to Daniels insist the governor will remain neutral in the Senate primary, as he did in the Coats primary last year, but the presence of his name on the presidential primary ballot could greatly increase turnout, a plus for Lugar.

Primaries in Indiana are open to all voters, but Democrats will be having their own contentious primaries for senator and governor, and that will limit the willingness of moderates and liberals to turn out for Republicans they’ve supported in the past.

Nor can Mourdock be certain he will be Lugar’s only primary challenger. Forty-one-year-old state senator Mike Delph is a conservative favorite, a former aide to Representative Dan Burton, and the author of Arizona-style legislation to allow police in Indiana to check the immigration status of criminal suspects.

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