Locked into a fierce GOP primary fight that has Democrats dreaming of an unexpected chance to pick up a U.S. Senate seat, Sen. Richard G. Lugar of Indiana is struggling to deflect an onslaught of attacks by tea-party sympathizers trying to oust him in favor of state Treasurer Richard Mourdock.
As early voting began Monday, the National Rifle Association and Club for Growth unrolled television and radio ads painting the seasoned lawmaker as an establishment sellout and Mr. Mourdock as the true conservative. Separated by seven points in the most recent Indiana poll, the two are scheduled to debate Wednesday.
The unusually small lead is worrisome for the 80-year-old Mr. Lugar, who has served longer than any other Republican in the Senate and hasn’t faced a serious battle for his seat in decades. If Mr. Mourdock pulls out a victory on May 8, analysts say it could give a strong edge to Democratic challenger Rep. Joe Donnelly in November.
Like other veteran lawmakers in recent years, Mr. Lugar is finding his lengthy tenure and diplomatic style of legislating are becoming dangerous liabilities, with his opponents blasting him for voting for the bank bailout and President Obama’s Supreme Court nominees and initially supporting Mr. Obama’s immigration plan.
“If Lugar does hold on, he can be very thankful he wasn’t running in 2010, because he fits the profile of a lot of those senators who got knocked off,” said John Krull, a journalism professor at Franklin College.
Down to the wire
A moderate in personalty and conservative in ideology, Mr. Lugar has long enjoyed approval ratings in the 70 percent to 75 percent range. But tea-party-inspired skepticism about moderate Republicans has Mr. Lugar struggling to reach even 50 percent support.
While he has the endorsements of popular Gov. Mitch Daniels and other party stalwarts and has outraised his opponent by more than 1 to 3, Mr. Mourdock’s strong backing by outside groups like the Tea Party Express is giving the senator a run for his money.
“I do think it’s going to be very close, and that in and of itself is a story because if Indiana had a Mount Rushmore, Dick Lugar’s face would be on it,” Mr. Krull said.
Mr. Lugar’s opponents have zeroed in on the senator’s personal friendship with Mr. Obama, highlighting how the two traveled together as senators and that Mr. Lugar served on Mr. Obama’s inaugural committee and appeared pleased when Mr. Obama featured him in a campaign ad in 2008.
Seizing on the relationship to cast doubt on Mr. Lugar’s conservative credentials, Mr. Mourdock also has implied that Mr. Lugar supported the president’s health care bill even though the senator voted against it along with every other Republican.
Lugar spokesman Andy Fisher said the flurry of attacks is no surprise and the campaign has been preparing for a tough race ever since it heard two years ago that tea-party groups planned to back a challenger to the senator.
“I think we’re finding in our recent contact with Indiana voters that they’re not fooled by the outside politics that have come in and tried to attack Senator Lugar and bring down his reputation that has been very solid as a conservative Republican throughout his career,” he said, adding that the campaign has called more than 1 million voters since the summer.
Voters’ new priorities
Mr. Lugar also faces the challenge of winning over voters who are preoccupied with jobs and spending, after he largely built his career around weapons disarmament, twice serving as chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee and co-authoring a bipartisan program in 1991 to eliminate weapons of mass destruction in the former Soviet Union.
“It’s just a different world, and the economic crisis and the downturn have changed public perceptions, and I don’t think that’s been favorable for Senator Lugar,” said Curt Smith, president of the Indiana Family Institute.
And a recent dispute between Mr. Lugar and the state board of elections over whether he even qualifies to vote in the state has added fuel to Mr. Mourdock’s attempts to cast him as a distant bureaucrat. Mr. Lugar, who has lived in Virginia for decades and used the address of an Indianapolis home he sold in 1977 to vote, settled the dispute last month by agreeing to register under the address of a family farm.
A formidable opponent
Meanwhile, supporters of Mr. Mourdock say his visibility in the state is a major draw. While the second-term treasurer, who also ran unsuccessfully for Congress twice, is still struggling to build name recognition among the general public, political insiders say he’s a popular speaker at the annual Lincoln Day dinners and frequently shows up at local GOP events across the state.
“He is absolutely tireless,” said Ed Feigenbaum, publisher of several newsletters on Indiana politics and government. “He has just spent hours and hours and hours over the past umpteen years.”
That scores points with younger folks, who say they feel Mr. Lugar takes the state for granted.
“I haven’t seen Lugar in Whitley County since I was a junior in high school in 1996,” said state Sen. Jim Banks. “I don’t think it’s just about issues; it’s about Richard Mourdock being a frequent visitor to our area, supporting our party.”
Mr. Mourdock also has scored points with social conservatives, winning the Indiana Right to Life endorsement after Mr. Lugar upset some by voting to confirm pro-choice justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.
But analysts say that without the outside help pouring into the Mourdock campaign, the race wouldn’t be nearly as close.
“It’s a referendum on Lugar, not Mourdock,” Mr. Feigenbaum said. “I hesitate to say he’s almost irrelevant in this, but there’s not a lot he can do to move the needle in favor of him.”