Sen. Dick Lugar trails GOP rival in poll. A surge of tea party power?
Ahead of Tuesday's GOP primary in Indiana, incumbent Sen. Dick Lugar lags challenger Richard Mourdock by 10 points, a new poll shows. A Lugar defeat would be a convincing demonstration of tea party power in 2012 election cycle.
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While Lugar's campaign has slammed Mourdock for joining with out-of-state groups who conduct "Mickey Mouse attacks," Mourdock's ads have seized on Lugar's past support for a gasoline tax increase. The claim is based on an op-ed Lugar wrote for The Washington Post in 2009 in which the senator proposed a "net zero" tax shift by reducing payroll taxes by equal amounts. Despite a worsening energy situation, "Dick Lugar wanted to raise gas taxes a dollar a gallon," an announcer says in one Mourdock ad.Skip to next paragraph
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The attacks – as well as a residency scandal, in which Lugar's right to vote in Indiana was briefly revoked (he lives in an affluent suburb in McLean, Va., and has listed a home he sold in 1977 as his primary residence in Indiana), and questions about his age – have taken a toll on Lugar.
More worrisome than his slim seven-point lead over Mourdock is Lugar's career-low approval rating of 42 percent. Incumbents whose approval ratings are less than 50 percent and who face strong challengers tend not to survive their primary contests.
What's more, Mourdock made up for what began as a 10-to-1 fundraising disadvantage by outraising Lugar in the first quarter of this year by $55,000.
Mourdock's gains suggest to some that Lugar failed to anticipate a vigorous challenge, a misstep possibly fueled by the fact that Democrats saw him as so unbeatable that they didn't even bother to put up a challenger against him in 2006.
"With polarization at this level, I wouldn't be surprised to see [Lugar] go down," says Keith Poole, a political scientist at the University of Georgia in Athens. He contrasts Lugar's situation with that of Sen. Orrin Hatch (R) of Utah, whom the tea party also had in its sights. "Hatch took off the gloves and went back to Utah and started punching people in the nose, and Hatch is going to win reelection."
To critics, Mourdock, the man from Darmstadt, Ind., is a rabid hard-liner with a milquetoast manner, committed to making "bipartisan" a dirty word. To his tea party supporters, both nationally and in Indiana, he is, as activist Anna Kroyman says, "a modern-day Founder," whose stump speech features lessons drawn from Abraham Lincoln and Ronald Reagan.
In person, Mourdock is affable, attentive, and direct, and he makes no pretense about his longtime interest in politics – including the fact that he twice lost contests for a congressional seat.
"I'm basically addicted to campaigning – no, seriously," he says. The former oil-industry geologist says he reads history books every night. At a later event, he ties the political stakes of today to Lincoln's words to Congress in 1862, shortly after the Union's narrow victory at Antietam: "We know how to save the Union.... We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best hope of earth."