Indiana tea party takes aim at Lugar’s Senate seat

He has served six terms in the Senate and won his last race with 87 percent of the vote, but that hasn’t prevented Indiana Sen. Richard G. Lugar from emerging as perhaps the most vulnerable Republican senator of the 2012 election cycle. And the big danger is coming from Mr. Lugar’s right flank.

In a replay of several marquee Senate primary battles from two years ago, the moderate Mr. Lugar finds himself in the crosshairs of the state’s growing and increasingly restive tea party factions. They question his conservative credentials and have made his ouster a top priority.

Hoosiersforconservativesenate.com, one of the group’s gunning for Mr. Lugar, slams his record, citing his stand on gun control (he earned a D+ from the National Rifle Association), his refusal to sign a legal brief challenging the constitutionality of the Obama health care law, his backing for the TARP Wall Street bailout in 2008 and what they claim is a poor track record on such issues as government spending, immigration and support for “liberal-minded” judges.

And not only do they want Mr. Lugar out, Indiana conservatives know who they want in.

Even though longtime libertarian candidate Andrew Horning signaled this week that he will enter the race, most see state Treasurer Richard Mourdock as the clear Republican challenger for Mr. Lugar in the primary after state Sen. Mike Delph announced last month that he would not run.

While Mr. Delph’s withdrawal is a major break for Mr. Mourdock, he still faces a substantial disadvantage in money and name recognition. According to Federal Election Commission reports through the second quarter of the year, Mr. Mourdock had $215,000 cash on hand compared with $3.5 million for Mr. Lugar.

“Defeating Sen. Lugar is and has been a priority for tea party activists,” said Jennifer Duffy, who analyzes Senate races for the Cook Political Report in Washington.

“Tea party activists in Indiana are very united against Lugar, allowing Mourdock to consolidate that vote. But this race isnt over because independents can vote in the GOP primary.”

Unlike fellow GOP incumbent Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, who has moved to shore up his right flank to head off a primary challenge in Utah, Mr. Lugar has tried to float above the fray, touting his record and clout in Washington in recent trips around the state.

“I respect the right of anyone to want to run for the United States Senate,” is about the most provocative comment he has made in recent weeks.

Mr. Mourdock, a geologist, has long had his eye on Washington. He lost the Republican primary for a U.S. House seat in 1988 and then lost two general election races for the same seat in 1990 and 1992.

He turned to state politics and was elected state treasurer in 2006 and re-elected in 2010, announcing plans to challenge Mr. Lugar just two months later. He is perhaps best known nationally for mounting a legal challenge to the Obama administrations Chrysler bankruptcy plan.

Mr. Mourdock has been endorsed by GOP presidential contender Herman Cain as well as Steve Forbes, radio pundit Mark Levin and influential conservative blogger Erick Erickson of Redstate.com. Other leading tea party and fiscal conservative groups are said to be considering an endorsement if Mr. Mourdock’s campaign proves to be viable.

A July poll by the conservative Club for Growth showed a tight race, with Mr. Mourdock leading Mr. Lugar 34 percent to 32 percent among likely GOP voters, but with 34 percent undecided. The senators own internal polling of 600 likely GOP primary voters, however, found him leading his challenger 45 percent to 31 percent.

Democrats in Indiana, who appear united behind three-term Rep. Joe Donnelly of South Bend as their candidate, are counting on the GOP primary to split the opposition, giving them a rare opportunity to pick up a Senate seat in a tough election year.

“This primary is going to divide Indiana Republicans in a painful way,” said Daniel Parker, chairman of the Indiana Democratic Party in a recent fundraising appeal. “Good thing we don’t have that problem.”

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