“I have great respect for Lugar and I’ve voted for him many times,” says Mourdock. “But he has moved from the mainstream to the left of the party. He’s a big-government Republican. Now is not the time for Lugar’s foreign-policy expertise. Indiana needs someone with business knowledge, someone who believes in limited government.”
Last summer, GOP activists began to approach Mourdock about running against Lugar. He says he didn’t take it seriously at first. “What did I ever do to you?” was his stock response. But the suggestions kept coming. After the election, Mourdock began to consider a race. “When Lugar refused to do away with earmarks in the lame-duck session, I decided to get in,” says Mourdock. “I’ll be the first to admit that in the world of budgets, earmarks are a rounding error. But I thought it was important.”
A handful of other conservatives had expressed interest in taking on Lugar, so Mourdock set about clearing the primary field, knowing that his only chance of success depended on a one-on-one matchup against the incumbent. He accomplished this by February, when he declared his Senate candidacy along with endorsements from 68 of Indiana’s 92 Republican county chairmen. This was an impressive feat given Lugar’s longtime service, as well as an expression of deep dissatisfaction with the senator. Mourdock remains an underdog, but an upset is well within the realm of possibility.
In the near term, Mourdock will have to raise more money. He amassed about $450,000 in the first half of this year — hardly a pittance, but a sum that will need to improve in the months ahead. Lugar, by contrast, has just put together the two most lucrative fundraising quarters of his career, a haul of almost $1.9 million. The senator admits that he feels a sense of urgency. “I’m working hard,” he says. Outside groups may try to even the odds. In July, the Club for Growth, a fiscally conservative political action committee, made what it calls a “six-figure ad buy,” running television commercials critical of Lugar. “We haven’t made a final decision about our ultimate role,” says club president Chris Chocola, a former Republican congressman from Indiana. “Lugar is beatable, but Mourdock needs to do a better job of fundraising.”
Even if Mourdock sputters out, he may be able to claim a small victory: Lugar has been acting like a conservative lately. Earlier this year, Lugar refused to co-sponsor the DREAM Act, which he had been eager to do as recently as December. He boasts of his votes against Obamacare, cap and trade, and new financial regulations. He has also become a born-again detractor of Obama’s foreign policy, especially on Libya. “It did not pose a threat to the United States,” he says. “I had an opportunity to say that directly to the president in the situation room at the White House.” He complains that Obama has ignored the provisions of the War Powers Act, which says presidents must receive the consent of Congress before committing the United States to extended military actions.
He’ll probably keep this up for a while. Yet there’s no telling how Lugar will behave in a seventh and presumably final term, when Obama’s favorite Republican senator knows he’ll never again have to explain himself to conservative primary voters.
— John J. Miller is national correspondent for National Review and the author of The Big Scrum: How Teddy Roosevelt Saved Football. This article originally appeared in the August 15, 2011, issue of National Review.