Dick Lugar, the Senate’s longest-tenured Republican, is in the midst of his toughest campaign of the past 30 years.
With the help of outside groups aligned with the Tea Party movement, state Treasurer Richard Mourdock stands a good chance of unseating Lugar in Tuesday’s primary and becoming the Senate’s newest fiscal hawk in January.
Along with Utah, it’s one of two notable conservative-vs.-establishment Senate primaries this year, after 2010 saw upsets in Alaska, Delaware, Nevada and Utah as Tea Partiers across the country gave incumbents a scare. This year, conservatives have targeted Republicans Lugar and Orrin Hatch, who ties Lugar atop the Senate GOP’s seniority list. Hatch of Utah is surviving, so far; Lugar, meanwhile, faces the strongest primary challenge to a Senate incumbent in 2012.
In Mourdock, Lugar faces a mild-mannered statewide officeholder who wants to eliminate federal agencies and cut more spending than Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., would.
After the Tea Party wave has seemed to fade post 2010, what is this election telling us?
WHAT THE RACE MEANS
- Same Story, New Year. Conservatives can still pick their spots and threaten incumbents, following the same script they used in 2010. In Indiana, FreedomWorks and the Club for Growth have replayed their standard playbook, choosing a state that’s not terribly expensive and attacking an incumbent for moderate votes. In Indiana, that means Lugar’s votes for TARP, against an earmarks moratorium, and in favor of Supreme Court justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan. Lugar has spent $6.7 million to Mourdock’s $2 million defending himself, with Mourdock’s PAC and super PAC backers ($2.9 million) outspending Lugar’s ($1.7 million).
- Pouncing on a Weak Incumbent. Lugar has his own problems, regardless of anything Mourdock has said or done. 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. He repaid the Treasury after using taxpayer money for hotel stays during trips back to Indiana. It resonates differently in Indiana in 2012 when Mourdock and the Club for Growth claim Lugar cast those votes because he’s “out of touch” with Indiana. Candidates who lost to Tea Partiers in 2010 didn’t have such pronounced liabilities.
- Which Super PAC Is That, Again? The panoply of election spenders – 12 groups have spent $4.6 million on this race – foretells more attack groups forming around non-presidential campaigns, and perhaps disappearing quickly. The pro-Lugar Hoosiers for Jobs and the Economy and the Indiana Values SuperPAC each formed earlier this year, in Sacramento, Calif., and D.C. respectively, and have run ads attacking Mourdock. The USA Super PAC, which supports Mourdock and is the only group spending in Indiana that was formed in the state, was launched in April by Citizens United lawyer James Bopp. These groups have been significant players along with Mourdock backers FreedomWorks, the Club for Growth, the National Rifle Association and the pro-Lugar American Action Network.
- The GOP Is Still Getting More Conservative. Mourdock is as fiscally conservative as they come, and even with Lugar’s weaknesses, it will say something if Republican voters pick him. “The election isn’t really about Richard Mourdock; it’s more reflective of the internal changes in the Republican Party,” former Democratic Indiana Sen. Evan Bayh suggested last week. Lugar supports Paul Ryan’s budgets and entitlement changes, which only recently would have given him notable conservative bona fides, yet his opponents have put him at risk by calling him too moderate.
- Richard Mourdock = Christine O’Donnell. He doesn’t – just ask Bayh, who said, “For lack of a better comparison, he’s not [failed Delaware Senate candidate] Christine O’Donnell, who just appeared out of nowhere. He’s a two-time-elected statewide candidate, which means he’s just more substantive.” Mourdock is in his second term as Indiana’s treasurer, and whereas O’Donnell, Nevada’s Sharron Angle and Alaska’s Joe Miller had no heavy statewide political experience, Mourdock has won twice and is a presence on the Indiana GOP circuit.
- Mourdock Is Definitely a Good Candidate. If he wins, we could find out Wednesday that Mourdock is O’Donnell, after all. Democrats have held back in the hopes that he’ll win. ”This dude is Ken Buck,” one Democratic operative said of Mourdock, in reference to the failed 2010 Tea-Party-backed Senate candidate in Colorado. The campaign of Indiana’s Democratic candidate, Rep. Joe Donnelly, thinks it has a better chance against Mourdock in the fall. Majority PAC, a Democratic super PAC focused on Senate races, has spent money to help Mourdock. There could be a reason.
- It’s All About Lugar’s Residence. Lugar’s troubles have gotten a lot of media coverage, but other Indiana candidates have faced criticism over residence. Most recently, Republican Dan Coats won in 2010 despite having suggested North Carolina might be a “better place” than Indiana. When he ran for governor, Bayh faced a residency-requirement legal challenge questioning his eligibility, because of time spent working in Washington, D.C. Lugar’s troubles are a “confluence of factors,” as Bayh put it, not just about his address.
- Mourdock Isn’t Really a Tea Partier. Is Mourdock being labeled a “Tea Partier” inaccurately by journalists grasping to categorize him? No. Mourdock checks all the Tea-Party boxes except outrage. “Let’s do away with the Department of Education, Energy, Commerce, Housing and Urban Development,” he told ABC News in an April phone interview. He also has proposed ending the IRS. Mourdock has suggested that Paul Ryan’s budget doesn’t go far enough, and he released his own rough plan last year to shrink spending by $7.6 trillion in 10 years (Ryan’s would reduce it by $5.5 trillion, according to the Congressional Budget Office). Mourdock does not want compromise with Democrats. “We don’t need bipartisanship, we need application of principle,” he said. Mourdock espouses anti-spending, “roll back government” conservatism as freely as anyone.