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.
Delph was recently reelected by a large margin in a Marion County (Indianapolis) district that Obama carried easily. He has promised constituents that he will not get into the Senate race while the legislature is in session, which could be well into April. Meanwhile, Tea Party activists have organized a draft Delph movement.
If both men run, Delph and Mourdock will split the conservative vote and open an avenue for Lugar’s survival. In Washington, there are those who insist the prideful Lugar in the end will call it quits rather than face GOP opposition back home. Even as Daniels was considering a race for president, Lugar released a poll he sponsored that showed he was the state’s most respected political figure, much to the chagrin of the governor’s presidential backers.
Confusing enough? There is even one political pro who believes that popular conservative congressman Mike Pence might be so convinced that Lugar is finished that he will not be able to resist an easy path to the Senate. Most think Pence will run for governor so he can gain executive experience for a future presidential race.
But for the moment it is Mourdock who is in the spotlight, and he is not without appeal. He is as comfortable making the scientific case against man-made global warming as he is noting it was international broadcasting that gave dissident Natan Sharansky the inspiring words of Ronald Reagan that helped him survive Soviet prisons.
“Richard was Tea Party before the Tea Party,” declares GOP activist Jill Schroeder Vieth, who got her political start as a college student working in Mourdock’s unsuccessful 1992 congressional campaign. He went on to serve two terms on the three-person Vanderburgh County (Evansville) board of commissioners—a rare success for a Republican in Indiana’s third-largest jurisdiction.
Lugar is reported to have a war chest of $2.5 million, and the former Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman is a revered figure in prestigious foreign policy circles.
But one phone call to the National Rifle Association is enough to confirm the “F” Lugar receives for his NRA voting record, along with the statement: “In his more than 30 years in the Senate, Richard Lugar has been a consistent opponent of gun owners’ rights on every key issue.”
That’s harsh music that will be played in coming months in rural Indiana.
Ultimately, however, it may be the words of Barack Obama that will give Lugar the most trouble back home. It puzzles political observers that Lugar allowed himself to be placed in this predicament—though it does echo the problems he had 40 years back as mayor of Indianapolis when networks dubbed him Richard Nixon’s favorite mayor.
Over the years the Almanac of American Politics has paid tribute to Lugar, a one-time Rhodes scholar, for his “considerable intellect” and his “powerful voice” in foreign policy. But you also find in the Almanac a recurring theme: Lugar’s career has been marred by political “disappointments.”
The 1994 Almanac explained:
In 1984, he ran to succeed his friend Howard Baker as Senate majority leader, and finished third behind Bob Dole and Ted Stevens. In 1986, he was elbowed aside in Foreign Relations by [Jesse] Helms, and in August 1988, George Bush picked—instead of Lugar—a junior and less experienced colleague, Dan Quayle, to be his vice president.
Two years later the Almanac notes that Lugar ran for president, finishing seventh in the GOP primary in Iowa and fifth in New Hampshire before quietly dropping out.
It could be that this history made Lugar vulnerable to Obama’s self-serving adoration. Indeed, if Lugar does stay in the 2012 Republican Senate primary, the list of disappointments may get a little longer.
Kenneth Y. Tomlinson is a former editor-in-chief of Reader’s Digest.