Lugar Trails Mourdock by 10 Points in Ind. Senate Race

Lugar Trails Mourdock by 10 Points in Ind. Senate Race

By Caitlin Huey-Burns - May 4, 2012

Over his 35-year Senate career, Republican Dick Lugar has built a reputation as an expert in foreign relations and a statesman whose stature, one observer said, would be worthy of a spot on Indiana's Mount Rushmore, if the state had such a monument.

But as he fights for his political life in the May 8 GOP primary, the 80-year-old Lugar has assumed a new orientation: the underdog.

An independent Howey/DePauw poll released Friday morning finds Lugar trailing his primary opponent by 10 points. According to the survey, Indiana state Treasurer Richard Mourdock attracts 48 percent of the support from likely primary voters, while Lugar picks up 38 percent.

Both candidates made their final pitches to voters in television ads released Friday. Mourdock looks straight into the camera and takes a slight hit at Lugar. “Dick Lugar has spent thousands of dollars telling you things about me that he knows are not true," he says in the spot. "He thinks this campaign's about me, but it's not. It's not about him either. It's about America's future. It's about spending less, paying down our debt, and restoring opportunity and freedom.”

Lugar narrates his own ad as well, and attempts to connect his Senate work to Hoosier interests -- something some analysts say he hasn’t done enough of in this campaign. "Whether it's fighting to stop job-killing over-regulation, or leading the charge to overturn Obamacare, protecting our energy security, or working to destroy and keep from terrorists thousands of rogue nuclear and biological weapons, my job has been and always will be to live up to the ideals of our state.” 

Lugar’s bid for a seventh term marks the first competitive race he has faced since winning election to the seat in 1976, when he defeated a Democratic incumbent. Since then, he has won easily five times, receiving at least 67 percent of the vote in his past four races. In 2006, no Democrat would run against him.

This time around, Hoosiers are debating whether to “Retire Lugar” (as campaign yard signs read) after 3½ decades of service in the Senate. The race, observers say, is more a referendum on the incumbent than a measure of support for Mourdock.

This primary has taken on themes reminiscent of the 2010 midterms, when “throw the bums out” sentiment coupled with Tea Party enthusiasm to send prominent incumbents packing. Mourdock, 60, has earned support from scores of Tea Party groups in his challenge, while establishment types like Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels and fellow longtime Sen. John McCain have thrown in their lot with Lugar.

Whoever wins next Tuesday stands a good chance of defeating Democrat Joe Donnelly in November. President Obama won Indiana four years ago by the slimmest of margins, but Democrats have virtually eliminated the state from its re-election map this time around. (Though some analysts argue a Lugar loss could actually provide an opportunity for Democrats.) The Senate primary has garnered national attention because the results figure to be a weathervane indicating the direction the GOP electorate is heading in. It will also test the power of outside groups, many of which have rallied behind the insurgent.

The conservative group Club for Growth has perhaps been the most active, running negative ads against Lugar. “What’s happened to Dick Lugar? He was a respected national leader, a statesman. Then he became part of the problem. … Now he is clinging to power,” says the narrator in one recent television spot. “Thirty five years in Washington is enough.” Another ad from the same group hit Lugar for supporting the Wall Street bailouts and Obama-nominated Supreme Court justices. The group has reportedly spent $1.4 million in this race.

In fact, both sides have run negative ads. Lugar accused Mourdock of selling out to the outside groups that have helped fuel his campaign and of distorting the incumbent’s record on health care. Mourdock has painted Lugar as a lawmaker who has spent so much time in Washington that he no longer represents Hoosier interests.

Regarding the latter charge, the incumbent has hardly helped himself. Indeed, Lugar doesn’t live in the state he represents on Capitol Hill.

Lugar sold his home in Indiana in 1977, soon after taking his Senate seat, and has lived in the D.C. suburbs of Northern Virginia ever since. The Marion County Election Board ruled that since Lugar did not own a home in Indiana, he could no longer vote there. Lugar fought the charges, but in doing so brought the issue into the national limelight. After the challenge, the board ultimately decided Lugar could claim his family farm in the county as a residence, and could thus vote. But the senator does not live on the farm and stays in hotels when he visits his home state.

Though the issue was resolved, it underscores Lugar’s troubles. He finds himself in a difficult primary because he rarely returns home, one GOP operative told RCP in March, when the airwave battle started to boil.

At the candidates’ first and only debate, held last month in Indianapolis, Mourdock capitalized on the issue in his closing argument. “The first thing I’m going to do to represent Hoosiers is to be in touch with them. I am proud to call this state home,” he said. “We all have great respect for Sen. Lugar . . . [but] my friends, I do believe it’s time.”

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

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