On May 8, Indiana Republicans will determine the fate of their longtime standard-bearer in the Senate, Dick Lugar. His opponent, state treasurer Richard Mourdock, is only seven points behind in the latest Howey/DePauw University poll, 42–35. Lugar’s showing below 50 percent suggests that Mourdock has a real chance to pull off an upset victory. Here are the three factors that could put Mourdock over the top.
Mourdock’s debate performance
The consensus among those who watched the sole debate between Lugar and Mourdock on April 11 was that, in the words of Politico’s David Catanese, it was “devoid of a clear knockout punch.” Mourdock dinged Lugar on a few points — his support for the ethanol mandate, the DREAM Act, and the New START treaty — but both candidates were civil, and the debate ended essentially in a draw.
But each candidate faced his own challenge going into the debate, argues Jim Bopp, Republican national committeeman for Indiana. Mourdock, whom Bopp supports, had to “demonstrate that he [had] both the knowledge and the intellect to deal with the problems that we are facing.” And on that score, Mourdock delivered. He made no gaffes, and the one line his opponents have culled from the exchange (his admission that his budget proposal “is rudimentary”) doesn’t seem particularly potent.
Lugar, on the other hand, had to assuage voters worried about his age, Bopp says. In that, Lugar succeeded. Even Bopp admits the senior senator is “intelligent and experienced — someone who’s been there 35 years and learned quite a bit about the issues of the day.” But the fact that their exchange was a draw suggests to voters that Mourdock is a credible challenger.
The ground game
When Rick Santorum dropped out of the presidential race, Mourdock told Politico that the “timing couldn’t be better.” “The real grassroots politics, the ones that motivate people, were the ones that were out there more for Santorum,” he argued. “They’re still going to be motivated, they’re still going to get out and vote but I don’t know that Romney’s folks” — in other words, Lugar’s folks — “will.”
Mourdock is not alone in his understanding of where his support comes from. “He is very strong with the grassroots folks,” says Dee Dee Benkie, Republican national committeewoman for the Hoosier State and a Mourdock supporter. Not only do both national committee members support Mourdock, but so do three-fourths of all county GOP chairmen. And the state treasurer is putting these troops to work.
“We’ve had over 3,000 people sign up to be volunteers — that is a veritable army,” Mourdock tells National Review Online. “We’ve been making phone calls, doing door-to-doors since October.” Although he couldn’t provide a specific number, Mourdock guesses that his campaign has contacted “hundreds of thousands” of voters. “It is going to make, I believe, all the difference.”
Not that Lugar is unorganized. His spokesman Andy Fisher tells NRO that Lugar’s campaign has recruited 700 volunteers and made 1.1 million phone calls to Hoosier voters so far. When Fisher himself volunteered to make calls to undecided voters one afternoon, he kept a tally of the responses, which were 54 percent for Lugar, 20 percent for Mourdock, and 26 percent undecided. Fisher also notes that the campaign has coordinators in all 92 counties.
With over $2.5 million in cash on hand, Lugar has more financial resources than Mourdock, who has a mere $430,000. Lugar has been on the airwaves since January; Mourdock, for about a month. Accordingly, Mourdock has failed to catch up with Lugar’s nearly universal name recognition. Forty percent of Republicans have no opinion of Mourdock and 17 percent have never heard of him.
But outside groups supporting Mourdock, including the Club for Growth, the National Rifle Association, and FreedomWorks, have filled the advertising gap. According to Nuvo, an Indiana newspaper, “independent groups and so-called super PACs have spent roughly $500,000 either supporting Mourdock or opposing Lugar in this year’s Senate race.” Meanwhile, “similar groups supporting Lugar or opposing Mourdock have spent only about $50,000.” Recently, the American Action Network has blunted Mourdock’s edge on this score with a $590,000 ad buy in behalf of Lugar, but the insurgent’s campaign will be able to wage a good fight.
With outside groups keeping the ad wars competitive, a motivated base gearing up to turn out in droves, and enough of a reputation to assure voters that, as Mourdock likes to say, he’s “capable, competent, and conservative,” the state treasurer just might beat Lugar on May 8.
— Brian Bolduc is an editorial associate for National Review.