COLUMBUS, Ind. — It doesn’t get more GOP establishment than Indiana Sen. Richard Lugar, an elder statesman who’s been known for reaching across the aisle over his six terms in the Senate.
But for the first time in decades, Lugar, 80, faces a challenger from his own party in the Hoosier state’s May 8 primary, and Indiana political observers have begun to think the unthinkable: That he could actually lose.
“A couple of months ago, I wouldn’t have thought that was possible,” said Margaret Ferguson, an associate professor of political science at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis. “But now I’m less certain about that.”
A nonpartisan April 30 poll by Howey Indiana, a political newsletter, and DePauw University has state treasurer Richard Mourdock leading Lugar, 48 percent to 38 percent. Lugar led Mourdock 42 percent to 35 percent in a similar early April survey.
What once was an asset now could be a liability: Lugar is an incumbent at a time when incumbents are unpopular, and he’s a moderate Republican when the party is trending more conservative.
He’s known for his foreign policy expertise at a time when the economy ranks higher for voters.
Lugar hasn’t lived in Indiana since he took office in 1977. That’s created an opening for his opponents in both parties, who challenged his eligibility to run for office or vote in the state. His critics say he’s grown out of touch with the values and priorities of the voters who elected him.
Ted Ogle, the chairman of the Bartholomew County Republican Party, supported Lugar in the past. But like most GOP leaders in Indiana’s 92 counties, he’s now endorsing Mourdock.
“He’s done a wonderful service to the country,” Ogle said of Lugar. “But it’s time for a change.”
Last week, Mourdock scored the endorsement of 2008 Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin, who remains popular with conservatives. High turnout among conservative voters in the primary would likely benefit Mourdock.
Ferguson said that Lugar might have a chance to sway voters who are on the fence or change the minds of those who say they lean toward Mourdock. “There is still some wiggle room in that people will sometimes say they’ll vote for a challenger, but then they won’t really do it,” she said.
But the most recent Howey poll took into account the “leaners” – and without them, Mourdock still leads Lugar 43 percent to 35 percent.
Ferguson said it all boils down to which side does the best job of motivating turnout. “I would assume that Lugar is good at that, except that he hasn’t had to do that in so long,” she said.
Lugar campaign spokesman Andy Fisher said he’s confident that his candidate will win the primary.
“I’m not saying it’s going to be a blowout or anything,” he said.
A Lugar loss would be one of the biggest upsets in Indiana political history. The outcome has national implications. If Lugar loses, Democrats may feel more confident of winning the seat in November, a potential blow to Republican hopes of gaining a Senate majority.
“We’re feeling supremely confident about our chances,” said Ben Ray, a spokesman for the Indiana Democratic Party.
Elizabeth Shappell, a spokeswoman for Indiana Rep. Joe Donnelly, the Democrats’ Senate candidate, said the party will offer a contrast to whoever the Republicans choose.
“Joe Donnelly will be competitive against either Republican candidate,” she said.
Mourdock, a social and fiscal conservative, has painted Lugar as out of touch with his constituents, and he sharply criticized Lugar’s votes to confirm President Obama’s Supreme Court nominees, his vote to oppose a ban on earmarks, and his support for the auto and bank bailouts. He told the Indianapolis Star editorial board that Lugar’s seniority is “overrated.”
“Lugar’s floundering campaign has been trying to sell the narrative that he is the only Republican who can hold this Senate seat in November,” said Chris Conner, a Mourdock spokesman. “Richard Mourdock is a seasoned two-term Republican elected state official in a Republican state.”
Lugar, who didn’t have a Democratic opponent in 2006 and hasn’t had a primary challenger since 1976, the year he was first elected, has fought back by playing up his opposition to Obama’s health care law and economic stimulus, and by casting doubts on Mourdock.
“It’s by far the most elaborate campaign Sen. Lugar’s ever had,” his spokesman Fisher said.
Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, who once worked for Lugar, endorsed him in a video, while Arizona Sen. John McCain endorsed him in a radio spot. Former secretaries of state George Shultz and Condoleezza Rice have endorsed him, too.
Lugar’s incumbency and establishment backing gives him a lopsided fundraising advantage. To date, Lugar has spent $5.4 million of his own funds to Mourdock’s $1.7 million. But in the first quarter of the year, Mourdock slightly outpaced Lugar in campaign donations, according to financial disclosure forms. Most of Mourdock’s individual contributions, and about half of Lugar’s, came from contributors outside Indiana.
Mourdock is backed by numerous national conservative groups, including the Club for Growth, the Tea Party Express and the National Rifle Association, and they’ve spent heavily on TV advertising.
But that may not be what’s swaying Republican voters toward Mourdock so much as the sense that it’s time for a change.
Pam Moffitt, a purchasing manager for a manufacturer, grew up with Lugar and respects him, but she said she’s supporting Mourdock.
“All my life, Lugar has been my senator,” she said. “Until now, maybe.”
Not everyone is ready to abandon Lugar. Fred White, a florist who describes himself as a “staunch Lugar supporter,” said that while he may not agree with every vote, Lugar overall has done a good job representing the state. White said that if Mourdock wins the primary, he might consider voting for Donnelly in November.
“Mourdock worries me a little,” White said.
Mourdock, 60, a former county commissioner and energy industry executive from southwest Indiana, has twice been elected state treasurer, and he gained attention in 2009 by challenging the Obama administration’s rescue of Chrysler. But voters know less about him than they do about Lugar, who served two terms as mayor of Indianapolis before he was elected to the Senate.
“Are they really going to pick this guy they don’t know much about, or are they going to pick someone they’ve known for 40 years?” Ferguson asked. “But this is an unusual year.”