If Indiana tea partiers have their way, Republican Dick Lugar is entering the twilight of his Senate years.
“For the last couple of years, his voting record has gotten progressively more liberal and more progressive. We’ve reached out to him. We’ve met with him. We’ve gone with all the motions and realized that there’s really no changing his mind on those voting issues,” says Monica Boyer, co-leader of Hoosiers for Conservative Senate, a new group focused on uniting conservatives around a primary challenger to Lugar.
Lugar’s active support for the DREAM Act, his backing of the New START treaty, and his votes to confirm Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan have soured many Indiana conservatives on the longtime senator, who was first elected in 1976.
“In Indiana, I don’t think we feel comfortable with Obama referring to Richard Lugar as his favorite Republican senator. That’s not a title that I want my senator to have,” says Craig Dunn, chairman of the Howard County GOP and a former campaigner for Lugar.
Dunn also doesn’t like how little time Lugar has spent visiting Indiana towns in recent years. “I’ve not seen my senator in four and a half years. He’s not been in our community at all.”
So far, only two names have been widely bandied about as possible Lugar challengers: state treasurer Richard Mourdock and state senator Mike Delph. Delph has made no formal announcement but appears to be weighing a run. Mourdock formally announced his run in late February, and his candidacy is backed by 74 percent of Indiana GOP county chairmen.
“It’s all about [the chairmen’s] dissatisfaction with the fact that Mr. Lugar hasn’t been around the state much,” Mourdock tells National Review Online. “He hasn’t been present, and certainly his agenda is moving more and more towards the Obama administration than traditional Republican thinking.”
Mourdock, who was reelected as state treasurer in November, is popular in Indiana; he won more votes than any other state candidate in the past election. The former businessman and county commissioner gained national attention in 2009 when he filed a lawsuit objecting to the terms of the government-arranged Chrysler bankruptcy. The bankruptcy violated the norm of giving priority to creditors who hold secured debt (such as the Indiana pension funds, which lost $5.6 million) over those with unsecured debt (such as the United Auto Workers). Mourdock also argued that it had been unconstitutional for the government to use TARP funds to bail out the auto companies.
Delph is best known for his efforts on immigration reform. “He’s been the point man on that for the last three, maybe four years, and that’s certainly gotten him a lot of publicity,” says Ed Feigenbaum, an Indiana political analyst. Right now, Delph is pushing for a law similar to Arizona’s controversial SB 1070.
Either man would face an uphill battle against Lugar, who has won his seat by 35 percentage points or more since 1988. In 2006, the year that Democrats swept e congressional elections, no Democrat even ran against Lugar. In addition, Lugar has raised over $2.3 million and had, as of a November poll he commissioned, a 66 percent approval rating.
As Lugar’s approval ratings show, there’s no clear statewide momentum yet to oust the senator, something Hoosiers for Conservative Senate is working to change. “The senator is beloved around the state and around the nation. We are right now focusing on educating Hoosiers about his actual voting record, showing that he is not as conservative as he says that he is,” says Boyer.
Feigenbaum questions whether the Tea Party push will succeed in changing Hoosiers’ view of Lugar. “Hoosiers tend to be much more centrist in their views than a lot of people think, and we don’t tend to be too interested in going for extremes in either end,” argues Feigenbaum.
Regardless of the primary’s outcome, the state will be spared enduring a repeat of last year’s Alaska Senate race, in which Lisa Murkowski decided to run as a write-in candidate after losing the Republican primary to Joe Miller. In Indiana, a primary loser cannot run in the general election, even as an independent or write-in candidate.
Feigenbaum doesn’t think there is a chance Lugar will decide to avoid the GOP primary by running as an independent. “He’s not an Arlen Specter. He firmly believes that he is a Republican and the majority of Republicans and the majority of Hoosiers believe the way that he does,” Feigenbaum says.
Nevertheless, the GOP primary could easily unleash tensions in the Indiana Republican party. Gov. Mitch Daniels has already said he will support Lugar, although it is unclear how active Daniels plans to be in the race. Rep. Mike Pence, who is expected to run for governor and who has supported Lugar in past years, has said nothing yet.
“I don’t think it’s going to tear the Republican party apart in any way, manner, shape, or form,” Mourdock says about his run, adding that primaries are “healthy.”
“Republicans always clamor for . . . free markets . . . [and] open competition in the marketplace,” he says. “If that’s good in the commercial marketplace, it’s equally good in the marketplace for Republican ideas.”
— Katrina Trinko is an NRO staff reporter.