Six-term Republican senator Dick Lugar is seeking a seventh, but he’s been facing his toughest primary challenge in decades. His opponent, state treasurer Richard Mourdock, charges that Lugar isn’t conservative enough and is “Obama’s favorite Republican”—a play on Lugar’s early reputation as “Nixon’s favorite mayor” when he was mayor of Indianapolis.
According to two recent polls, Lugar leads Mourdock by only 6 points, 45 percent to 39 percent, among Indiana primary voters, despite the fact that the incumbent senator has a big financial advantage and universal name ID among Hoosiers.
Mourdock has cited Lugar’s support for spending and bailouts, amnesty for illegal immigrants, and votes confirming both Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan to the Supreme Court as reasons for Republican primary voters to make the switch. And he’s been making his case on Indiana television and radio. Mourdock's latest ads focus on Lugar's support for a gas tax. In addition to his own ads, Mourdock has received help from the Club for Growth, which has endorsed him and is investing heavily in ads attacking Lugar.
But Mourdock may also be getting his boost from a minor scandal plaguing Lugar. On March 15, the Marion County election board voted 2-1 to revoke Lugar’s voting privileges on the grounds that Lugar hasn’t resided in the home from where he was registered since 1977. The Mourdock campaign seized on the issue, saying Lugar “doesn’t live here [in Indiana] anymore.” Lugar spokesman Andy Fisher says the residency attacks are just the “politics of personal destruction,” noting that Lugar’s Democratic opponents are taking the same tack. (On March 30, Lugar won his appeal to the election board and will be allowed to vote in Indiana.)
Mourdock has also made Obamacare an issue of the primary race, arguing that Lugar isn’t a forceful opponent of the unpopular health care law and only signed on to an amicus brief to the legal appeal in January.
Lugar has fought back, rolling out several ads that tout the senator’s support for repealing Obamacare. “Obamacare is wrong for America, and I believe it’s unconstitutional,” Lugar says in a recent ad. Fisher says Lugar will continue to vote to repeal the law.
Lugar’s campaign has also targeted Mourdock’s record as state treasurer, noting in one ad that Mourdock missed “66 percent of the committee and board meetings we pay him to attend.” Mourdock says the fact that the Lugar campaign has had to respond means his effort to unseat the nearly 80-year-old senator is working. “You best judge your traction based on the other side’s reaction,” Mourdock says.
Despite the closer race, Lugar’s spokesman says the campaign is upbeat. “When you have multiple outside forces spending money [against Lugar], we're actually doing pretty well,” Fisher says.
Indiana’s primary is on May 8, and the winner will likely face Democratic congressman Joe Donnelly in the general election.