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Lugar-Mourdock Indiana Senate Battle Grows Heated

Lugar-Mourdock Indiana Senate Battle Grows Heated

By Caitlin Huey-Burns - April 11, 2012


Indiana Republican Sen. Dick Lugar fits the profile of an endangered incumbent: Having served in the upper chamber for 3 1/2 decades, he reeks of Washington; he does not live in the state he was elected to serve; and he fails to break 50 percent support in the polls -- a threshold that often signals danger ahead.

After gliding to victory in six Senate elections in the Hoosier State, the 80-year-old Lugar finds himself in the fight for his political life against a candidate from his own party. Buoyed by financial support from outside conservative groups, state Treasurer Richard Mourdock is closing in on Lugar, painting him as a Washington politician who has lost touch with home state interests. These contrasts have been playing out through heated airwave attacks, and will likely be showcased in a debate Wednesday between the two candidates in Indianapolis.

But while Mourdock, 60, appears well positioned in the run-up to the May 8 primary -- and is likely to pick up more media attention now that the presidential primary is virtually settled -- some party strategists argue that Lugar’s lead among independent voters in the open primary could boost the incumbent's campaign, and that his stature in Indiana is not to be underestimated.

In light of the 2010 midterms, it is easy to characterize this GOP race as a battle between the establishment and the Tea Party -- and to cast doubts about Mourdock’s ability to win in the general election against Democrat Joe Donnelly. But Mourdock is no Sharron Angle or Christine O’Donnell. He welcomes Tea Party support but makes clear he is not running as a movement candidate. And though President Obama narrowly won Indiana four years ago, Democrats have all but drawn the state out of their 2012 electoral map. Whoever wins the GOP Senate primary stands a good chance at winning the seat in November.

The results, though, will likely have some interesting implications for other races that feature a vulnerable incumbent up against the force of outside groups.

This week, the National Rifle Association and the conservative Club for Growth each launched new television ads targeting Lugar’s long tenure in Congress. The NRA spot questions his record on Second Amendment rights. “Over 36 years in Washington, Dick Lugar has changed,” says the narrator, while a picture of a young Lugar and one of him standing with Obama flash across the screen. “And he’s become the only Republican candidate in Indiana with an ‘F’ rating from the NRA. It’s time for another change.”

The Club for Growth spot calls Mourdock the “conservative choice for Senate” and accuses Lugar of supporting “bailouts, tax hikes, and Obama Supreme Court justices.” Mourdock, the voice-over says, will fight against “Obamacare” and support a balanced budget. (Lugar voted against the health care law, but Mourdock charges that he refused to sign a legal brief backing the suit filed against the law.) “This time, Indiana Republicans have a choice for Senate,” says the narrator, referring to Lugar’s lack of strong competition in past races.

The Mourdock campaign plans to run an ad of its own as early as this week.

Meanwhile, the incumbent released a spot painting his opponent as a sellout to outside groups. The 30-second television ad includes audio of Mourdock declaring, “I’m confident there will be a lot of national money flowing in to help us.” It features video clips of apparent voters expressing concerns about Mourdock’s intentions. “I just wonder who is pulling his strings,” says an elderly woman. One man says Mourdock’s election would be like Obama’s: a “horrible mistake.” And one young woman claims the candidate is “only trying to win an election for himself.”

The Lugar ad suggests “Hoosiers have questions about the outside influence coming into this race,” the senator’s spokesman, Andy Fisher, told RCP. Mourdock “wasn’t able to get any support for his own campaign from Hoosiers so he really had to go hat in hand to national groups asking, telling them he would carry their agenda if they would support his campaign by putting commercials on in the state.” (This is Lugar’s third negative ad this cycle. Last month he ran one accusing Mourdock of distorting his record on health care. The month before, he released an ad calling his opponent a mudslinger.)

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Caitlin Huey-Burns is a congressional reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at chueyburns@realclearpolitics.com. Follow her on Twitter @CHueyBurnsRCP.

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