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Can He Pull it Off?

Richard Mourdock may be on his way to toppling Dick Lugar.

9:05 AM, May 1, 2012 • By MICHAEL WARREN
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State treasurer Richard Mourdock, a 60-year-old Republican candidate for U.S. Senate, says the stakes in the Indiana primary couldn’t be higher. “This race is for the heart and soul of the Republican party in the United States Senate,” Mourdock tells THE WEEKLY STANDARD.

Lugar, Mourdock

Dick Lugar, Richard Mourdock

The May 8 election could also turn out to be the final fight of 80-year-old incumbent Dick Lugar’s long career. A six-term senator and former Indianapolis mayor, Lugar is an institution, but conservative forces within the Republican party have long grumbled that he is too moderate and too ensconced in the Washington bubble, where he’s been since entering the Senate nearly 36 years ago. Now, Lugar is in danger of losing the GOP nomination to Mourdock, who is giving Lugar the toughest electoral battle he’s ever faced.

Internal campaign polls have shown Mourdock leading Lugar, despite the senator having better name recognition and a full campaign war chest. Mourdock says it was a televised debate on April 11 between himself and Lugar that made the race truly competitive. 

“My mission going in was to look confident, capable, and conservative,” Mourdock said. “And that’s what I did.” Fundraising went up following the debate, as did Mourdock's standing in his own internal polls. National media outlets, he says, got interested pretty quickly.

That may be because the primary looks more like a proxy war between GOP establishment types (for Lugar) and the conservative movement (for Mourdock). Norm Coleman’s American Action Network and Eric Cantor’s Young Guns Network Fund, for instance, have engaged in the super PAC TV ad war on his behalf. John McCain, his long-time Senate colleague, and Indiana governor Mitch Daniels have cut ads for Lugar, with McCain calling Lugar a “patriot” and a “hero.” Mourdock has his own help from conservatives and the Tea Party. McCain’s 2008 running mate, Sarah Palin, enthusiastically endorsed Mourdock on her Facebook page. The Club for Growth and the National Rifle Association have invested in anti-Lugar ads and mailers across Indiana.

The establishment is starting to show signs of retreat. American Action Network, which spent thousands of dollars on television ads and direct mailing, unceremoniously pulled its ad campaign late last week. (A spokesman told Politico that AAN decided to “let this race play out.”) The Young Guns Network has continued to spend money on the race but has resorted to encouraging Democrats to vote in Indiana’s open primary for Lugar and against Mourdock. A recent Washington Post headline sums up the looming feeling that the momentum is on Mourdock’s side: “Is it too late for Dick Lugar?”

Lugar himself seems to recognize this race is about his political survival, but he remains upbeat.

“I’m not looking at myself as a casualty,” he recently told reporters in the Capitol. “The word survivor’s the correct word. [We’re] quite healthy, and I believe we’re going to win." 

In the remaining week, Lugar will try to convince Indiana Republicans that Mourdock is both unelectable in the general and not conservative enough. The second tactic is an intriguing line of attack, since it parrots what Mourdock has been saying about Lugar. To that end, the Lugar campaign has been emphasizing positions Mourdock took when he ran unsuccessfully for Congress in 1992. Back then, Mourdock told a newspaper in Evansville that he supported the FCC’s Fairness Doctrine, the rule that required equal time for opposing views on radio and stymied opinion talk radio until its repeal in the 1980s. Also during his 1992 campaign, Mourdock came out in opposition to the North American Free Trade Agreement and supported cutting back on foreign aid.

For his part, Mourdock says he’s changed in the last 20 years. “I’m certainly more conservative now than I was in 1992,” he admits, attributing his political shift to his work in the “world of finance.”

But what about the charge that Mourdock puts the otherwise safe GOP seat in play? Lugar, after all, has won easily all six of his Senate campaigns. A poll in late March, one of the few surveys of the race, shows Lugar ahead of the likely Democratic nominee, Congressman Joe Donnelly, by 21 points; Mourdock, meanwhile, ties Donnelly. Republicans risk losing the Senate seat if Mourdock is the nominee, the Lugar camp claims. 

Mourdock calls that scenario a “canard” and points to his 2010 reelection as state treasurer as proof he can win statewide and beat Donnelly. “In 2010, Joe Donnelly spent 2.2 million dollars to win by one point,” Mourdock says. “I got more votes than he did in his own district. I beat him in his own district.” President Barack Obama’s high unpopularity in a state he carried in 2008 and Mike Pence’s gubernatorial run to succeed Daniels also bode well for whichever Republican wins next Tuesday.

Hoosiers deciding in the last week may break for Lugar, if only because of their familiarity with the man whom they’ve sent to the Senate for 36 years. Then again, Indiana Republicans may very well be ready to trade in for a relatively younger, more conservative senator.

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