When Barack Obama was running for president, there was one Republican besides George W. Bush whom he wouldn’t stop talking about. “Politics don’t have to divide us,” he said at his campaign kickoff in 2007. “I’ve worked with Republican senator Dick Lugar . . .” Obama dropped the name of the senior senator from Indiana during his first presidential debate with John McCain, and then again during their third debate: “If I’m interested in figuring out my foreign policy, I associate myself with my running mate, Joe Biden, or with Dick Lugar.” Obama even ran advertisements that showed him with Lugar.
To the surprise of many, the Hoosier State wound up giving its electoral votes to a Democratic presidential candidate for the first time since 1964 and for only the second time since the Depression. “I saw those ads,” says Richard Mourdock, Indiana’s Republican treasurer. “My reaction was: You’ve got to be kidding me.” Mourdock assumed that they’d disappear in a day or two. “It was an implied endorsement. I thought Lugar would pick up the phone and ask for the ads to go off the air. That didn’t happen. You can make a case that Obama won our state’s eleven electoral votes because of those ads.”
Democrats may have flourished in Indiana in 2008, but Republicans roared back in 2010. They won every statewide office, picked up two congressional seats, and gained commanding majorities in the state legislature. Mourdock collected more than a million votes as he coasted to reelection. Now he has set his sights on a new office — the one currently held by Lugar. In February, he announced for the Senate.
Mourdock plans to oust the Republican heavyweight by tapping the energy of grassroots conservatives and tea-party activists, repeating last year’s insurgent performances by Mike Lee in Utah, Marco Rubio in Florida, and Pat Toomey in Pennsylvania. Between now and May 8, 2012, when Indiana primary voters head to the polls, the Lugar–Mourdock race could become one of the most bitter and hard-fought Republican contests in the country.
Richard E. Mourdock, who will turn 60 in October, was born and raised in Ohio, the son of a state trooper. After graduating from Defiance College, he moved to Indiana, where he earned a master’s degree in geology from Ball State and spent the next three decades working for oil and coal companies. He started to take an interest in politics in 1984, when he found himself living in “the Bloody Eighth,” a southern-Indiana congressional district that briefly captured the nation’s attention. A Republican, Rick McIntyre, had narrowly defeated the Democratic incumbent, Frank McCloskey, in a tight race that required a recount. Democrats in Washington refused to seat McIntyre, hired their own auditors, and eventually proclaimed McCloskey the winner by four votes. House Republicans marched out of Congress in protest, but they were powerless to change the outcome. “I was outraged,” says Mourdock. “The election was stolen.”
After McIntyre lost a rematch two years later, Mourdock decided to run for Congress. He came up short in the 1988 GOP primary but captured his party’s nomination in 1990 and 1992, losing the general election both times to McCloskey. “Newt Gingrich asked me to try again in 1994, but I’d had enough,” says Mourdock, who might have discovered that the third time’s a charm in what became one of the best years ever for congressional Republicans. Instead, he won a spot on his county commission and served for eight years. In 2002, he failed to get the GOP nod for secretary of state. Four years later, he won election as state treasurer and he is now in his second term.
Mourdock is a mainstream conservative: pro-life, opposed to gay marriage, and committed never to support a tax hike. As a trained geologist who worked in the energy industry, he speaks with authority on the need for more domestic production, as well as the dangers of global-warming alarmism. He’s a history buff, too. Recent readings include Lincoln’s Sword, a study of Abraham Lincoln’s rhetoric by Douglas L. Wilson. On the day of our meeting at a hotel in Indianapolis, Mourdock wore a yellow tie with blue script on it. “I can’t remember if this is my Emancipation Proclamation tie or my Gettysburg Address tie,” he said. (A close inspection revealed that it was the Emancipation Proclamation tie.)
Lugar sensed his vulnerability to a conservative challenger last year, announcing that he would seek reelection in August, the earliest he has ever declared his intentions. “I wanted to make it well known that I’d be a candidate,” he says. Now in his sixth term, Lugar is the longest-serving Republican in the Senate, so he also may have wanted to put down the inevitable speculation that he would retire rather than try to become an octogenarian senator (he’ll turn 80 next year). Lugar is old enough to have briefed President Eisenhower as a young officer in the Navy. He was elected mayor of Indianapolis in 1967 and senator in 1976. When Obama cozied up to Lugar in 2005, he wasn’t just trying to burnish his bipartisan credentials by co-opting a mild-mannered Republican. He was also hoping to offset his relative youth and inexperience by hanging out with an elder statesman.
In most of his Senate races, Lugar has won about two-thirds of the vote, but that’s been against Democratic opposition. In 2006, his last election, the Democrats didn’t even bother to run a candidate against him, even though that was a good year for their party — the year of Nancy Pelosi. Perhaps they knew what they were doing. In 2010, only four Republican senators registered more liberal voting records, according to the American Conservative Union. In a separate analysis, National Journal ranked Lugar as the Senate’s fourth most liberal Republican. He’s a moderate to the core: a pro-lifer who voted to confirm both of Obama’s nominations to the Supreme Court, a hawk on farm subsidies who opposed the ban on earmarks, and a foe of Obamacare who has supported more federal spending on health care. Lugar also has favored stronger gun-control laws, minimum-wage hikes, and the DREAM Act, which would provide an amnesty to illegal aliens who attend college or serve in the military.
Lugar is best known for his interest in foreign policy, especially for his work on nuclear security with Sam Nunn, a former Democratic senator from Georgia. The Cooperative Threat Reduction Program, which seeks to dismantle Russian missiles, is commonly known as “Nunn-Lugar.” When Obama joined the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 2005, Lugar took the young Democrat under his wing. They traveled together to Russia, Ukraine, and Azerbaijan. “We had some very good observations,” says Lugar. “I appreciated his interest in the Nunn-Lugar program.” The warm relations continued as the two men co-sponsored a minor piece of legislation to expand Nunn-Lugar. Then came the presidential election. On the campaign trail and in those television ads, Obama countered claims that he lacked foreign-policy experience by citing his work with Lugar.
What did Lugar make of all this? “I was startled,” he says. “That raised the attention level considerably.” Yet he didn’t do anything about it. The rock star Tom Petty recently asked Republican presidential candidate Michele Bachmann to stop playing his song “American Girl” at campaign events, but Lugar didn’t see fit to ask Obama to quit using his image in television ads. “I suppose it’s a free country,” he says. “I had no ability to expunge it.” Democrats were delighted that he didn’t even try. “If Lugar was really upset, he would have asked to have the ad removed,” says Kip Tew, who ran the Obama campaign in Indiana. “The effect of the ad was to give moderate Republicans a permission slip to vote for Obama.” As Democrats gloated, Indiana conservatives fumed.
In the White House, Obama continued to collaborate with Lugar, who pushed for ratification of the New START treaty, an arms-reduction pact with Russia. Last December, as it went before the Senate for approval in a lame-duck session, conservatives tried to postpone its consideration until January, when a new Senate with more Republicans would convene. Lugar worried that delay spelled doom, so he teamed up with Democrats to make sure his future GOP colleagues couldn’t block it. “I just got off the phone with Dick Lugar,” said Obama on December 22, after New START’s ratification. “I told him how much I appreciated the work he had done and that there was a direct line between that trip we took together when I was a first-year senator and the results of the vote today on the floor.” When a Fort Wayne, Ind., television station asked Lugar about tea-party critics who had voiced concerns about the treaty, he launched a terse counterstrike: “Get real.”
“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.