Politics & Policy

Why Lugar Lost

Senator Richard Lugar (R., Ind.)
He had lost touch with the grassroots.

Senator Dick Lugar of Indiana lost his party’s nomination tonight because he had lost touch with the party’s grassroots.  

Since his election to the Senate in 1976, Lugar had cut a profile as a moderate Republican: He had supported the ethanol mandate, backed the Brady Bill, and opposed the Iraq surge. In previous cycles, Republicans had forgiven Lugar his ideological transgressions, but in recent years, he had become more brazen. Not only did Lugar support the DREAM Act; he cosponsored it. Not only did he vote for New START, he spoke forcefully in its favor. True, Lugar wasn’t Arlen Specter — he opposed the stimulus and Obamacare — but his voting record was moderate enough to make him suspect.

And a combination of a poorly run campaign, a credible opponent, and a small, energized electorate sealed his fate.

#ad#1. Lugar ran a nasty and ineffective campaign. Senator Orrin Hatch faces many of the same challenges Lugar did, yet he’s in a stronger position going into Utah’s primary. Why? Because Hatch has recognized the threat to his candidacy and tried to meet it with full force. Lugar seemingly ignored the Tea Party — even insulted it, at times.

He should have known better. On the campaign trail, Lugar said he knew he would face a challenge as early as October 2010. That month, a group of tea partiers confronted Lugar and warned him he was their next target. They were angry that Dan Coats, who had previously served in the Senate and retired, had captured the Senate nomination because conservatives were divided among a number of candidates in the primary. Next time, they vowed, they would be united.

Although Lugar raised over $4 million for his campaign, he didn’t hit the campaign trail until the fall of 2011. His opponent, state treasurer Richard Mourdock, however, announced his candidacy in February 2011. Lugar met some success in courting conservatives: Leaders of the Hamilton County Tea Party, for instance, decided to back him after hearing him out. But Lugar’s reappearance on the campaign trail also reminded the rank and file that they hadn’t seen him at their Lincoln Day Dinners and their party conventions for decades.

And Lugar wasn’t the most effective speaker, either. When he took the stump, he made a reasonable argument — that, with his seniority, he was an effective advocate for his state’s interests — and he illustrated it with three points: He voted against Obamacare, he wrote a farm bill that would cut $40 billion, and his efforts on behalf of nuclear disarmament were important. Unfortunately, his message was out of tune with the times. And, accustomed to speaking with other pols, Lugar littered his speeches with Washington anecdotes — what Harry Reid had said to him the other day, or how Republicans had delayed Democratic bills with hours of debate. These anecdotes only reinforced Lugar’s image as an out-of-touch politician.

It also didn’t help that he had once told his more conservative opponents on New START to “get real.”

#page#

Furthermore, Lugar’s attacks on Mourdock simply weren’t creditable. Because Mourdock lacked a voting record to attack, Lugar’s camp tried to attack his character. Their targets were questionable: a tax deduction Mourdock erroneously received, a number of meetings Mourdock hadn’t attended, a group of junk bonds in which Mourdock had invested state funds. These weren’t signs of an untrustworthy character, but of a person who had made honest mistakes. And voters noticed.

The negative campaign tarnished Lugar’s statesman image. When Howey/DePauw asked voters in their last poll of the campaign whether, over the past few weeks, their opinion of Lugar had became less favorable, 32 percent said yes, while 12 percent said no.

#ad#2. Mourdock was a credible opponent.

Unlike Christine O’Donnell or Sharron Angle, Mourdock committed almost no gaffes on the campaign trail. The only major gaffe was committed by his campaign manager, Jim Holden, who in an e-mail leaked to the press compared scouring the state party’s e-mail list to pillaging a monastery. The controversy quickly blew over.

Unlike the Tea Party’s less successful candidates, Mourdock was an experienced pol. He ran for Congress in the early Nineties as well as for the party’s nomination for secretary of state. And he had just come off winning two statewide elections as state treasurer. Soft-spoken and understated, Mourdock also put in a strong performance against Lugar in their lone debate in April: He knocked Lugar on his support of New START and his backing of ethanol, and, in so doing, showed his own competence. Once Mourdock showed he was a credible opponent, he started rising in the polls.

3. Turnout was low and concentrated among Mourdock’s motivated supporters.

When Rick Santorum pulled out of the presidential race last month, Mourdock told Politico that it was the best possible timing for his campaign. Because Mitt Romney had sewn up the GOP nomination, there would be less interest among casual voters in Indiana. As a result, Mourdock predicted, it would be his more ideologically committed supporters who would turn out — and they did.

In the closing days of the campaign, Lugar was left to plead for the assistance of independents and Democrats to save his candidacy. That tactic — along with his refusal to say whether he would support Mourdock if he won the primary — only heightened Republicans’ suspicions of him. Lugar’s mistakes compounded each other, and now the 36-year incumbent, who once seemed invincible in the Hoosier State, has gone down to defeat. 

— Brian Bolduc is an editorial associate for National Review.

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