Dick Lugar’s Indiana Loss Is a Win for Democrats

May 9, 2012 7:51am

In a tough year for Senate campaigns, Democrats will take everything they can get.

This year’s map of Senate races heavily favors the GOP, which will defend only 10 seats to Democrats’ 23. Six Democratic incumbents have declined to run, and Democrats will have to defend seats in 11 competitive races, while Republicans will only defend in five.

All of which makes Sen. Dick Lugar’s loss welcome news for Democrats, who seem to have figured all along that their candidate, Blue Dog Rep. Joe Donnelly, would fare better against Tea Party-backed, Saran Palin-endorsed state Treasurer Richard Mourdock in November.

Now that Mourdock has defeated the six-term senator, Democrats might have a chance at winning a seat they had otherwise written off.

Mourdock is a more polished politician than the failed Tea Party candidates of 2010, having won two statewide races for treasurer. “He’s not Christine O’Donnell,” as former Indiana Democratic Sen. Evan Bayh recently put it to ABC News.

Neither Delaware’s O’Donnell, Alaska’s Joe Miller nor Nevada’s Sharron Angle had held statewide office. Nor is Mourdock driven by the same outrage and indignation that seethed in conservative politics in 2010.

“Mr. Lugar is trying to paint me as this wild-eyed Tea Party guy. It’s not like I just popped up like a morel mushroom in the spring of agitation,” Mourdock told ABC News in an April phone interview. “I was out there for years before anyone had even heard of the Tea Party, saying the same things … the field has moved.”

But Mourdock is as conservative as they come, and the field has moved indeed. Mourdock has campaigned on some policy points that would have turned heads in 2010, but that are now unsurprising.

“Let’s do away with the departments of Education, Energy, Commerce, Housing and Urban Development,” Mourdock, 60, told ABC, adding that he also wants to dump the IRS.

He says the budget plans of House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., have not gone far enough.

The most telling thing about Mourdock, however, is that Democrats have tried to help him win.

In February, the Democratic opposition-research super PAC American Bridge promoted the issue that might have taken Lugar down: his residency. After the Daily Caller reported on Lugar’s residency in Virginia, the group posted a YouTube video outlining how Lugar, 80, no longer lived in the Indiana house listed on his voter registration, and that he had sold it in 1977.

Later, Lugar was briefly ruled ineligible to vote in the county where he was registered, after selling his home in the late 1970s and moving to Washington, D.C., and he repaid taxpayer money spent on hotel stays in Indiana.

Meanwhile, Majority PAC, the Democratic super PAC that focuses on Senate races, spent $32,500 on Internet ads attacking Lugar. It spent no money attacking Mourdock.

Democrats have held back opposition research on Mourdock in the hope that he would win the primary. Now that he has, we can expect a barrage of stored-up attacks. “This dude is Ken Buck,” one Democratic operative said, in reference to the failed Republican Senate in Colorado in 2010.

If Democrats deliver on their claims about Mourdock, we could find out he is Christine O’Donnell, after all.

The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee released a memo this morning from Executive Director Guy Cecil outlining some (or maybe all) of what’s in store. Cecil wrote:

· Mourdock spent $2 million of taxpayer money on a lawsuit that could have endangered 124,000 Indiana jobs, including 4,000 high-paying jobs in Kokomo, Indi., by killing Chrysler’s bankruptcy restructuring. Mourdock called the lawsuit his “Rosa Parks moment.” Mourdock’s Tea Party opposition to the entire auto industry rescue could have cost the state 140,000 jobs in total.

· In his defense, Mourdock says, “I didn’t take a pledge that I would support every job in Indiana under whatever means it takes to do it.”

· Mourdock says that “I think there needs to be more partisanship” in Washington.

· Mourdock has questioned the constitutionality of Social Security and Medicare.

Before Tuesday’s primary, Donnelly’s campaign was more sanguine about its chances against Mourdock. Internal polling from March, a campaign official said, showed Donnelly leading Mourdock by single digits while he trailed Lugar by 20 percentage points. Internal polling is never to be relied upon, but the Donnelly campaign was vocal about its chances against Mourdock, more so than against Lugar.

A Republican strategist acknowledged that with Mourdock’s win, the GOP will need to keep closer tabs on the Indiana Senate race, but the strategist noted that Mourdock has already hired an experienced campaign team. That will serve as one notable difference between Mourdock and unsuccessful Tea Partiers past.

With the Club for Growth, FreedomWorks and the National Rifle Association having aided Mourdock during his primary run, look for the National Republican Senatorial Committee to help Mourdock from now on. In his acceptance speech, Mourdock said his first post-victory phone call came from NRSC chairman and Texas Sen. John Cornyn, saying the NRSC would spend enough in Indiana to ensure Mourdock’s victory.

Indiana has trended red in recent statewide elections, so the difference between Mourdock and Lugar could simply be a couple million dollars of the NRSC’s money. Or it could change the November dynamics more drastically in Democrats’ favor, as the race is no longer between two centrists, but between a moderate Blue Dog and a staunchly conservative Tea Partier.

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