Tea party challenge puts Sen. Richard Lugar in the fight of his political life

Sen. Richard Lugar is a six-term incumbent, highly regarded for his work on national security issues. But tea party-backed challenger Richard Mourdock says Lugar has lost touch with his Indiana constituents. In the run-up to Tuesday's GOP primary, Mourdock leads in the polls.

Danese Kenon/The Indianapolis Star/AP
GOP Senate primary candidate Richard Mourdock prays during a rally held for him, Saturday, May 5, 2012, at Veterans Plaza in Indianapolis. FreedomWorks, a national tea party group, was responsible for the rally.
James Brosher/South Bend Tribune/AP
U.S. Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., faces a tough primary election challenge Tuesday.

Sen. Richard Lugar has many fans in Washington and abroad.

The six-term Republican from Indiana – Eagle Scout, Rhodes scholar, US Navy veteran, former mayor of Indianapolis – also seems to represent the values all Hoosiers are proud of. He’s conservative without making a fetish of it, willing to work with Democrats when necessary, successfully tackling some of the toughest issues – especially reductions in the world’s arsenal of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons.

But my, how things have changed, and Senator Lugar now finds himself in the political fight of his life.

How much do you know about the Tea Party? A quiz.

Lugar has handily won every election since he ousted incumbent Democrat Vance Hartke in 1976. Last time around, Democrats didn’t even challenge his reelection (which he won with 87 percent of the vote).

What’s happened in the intervening years? The tea party movement. And like other Republicans tarred with the brush of perceived moderation, Lugar – an energetic 80 year-old – could find himself involuntarily retired this Tuesday when Indiana holds it primary election.

Lugar’s GOP primary opponent is state treasurer Richard Mourdock.

Mr. Mourdock has racked up important conservative group endorsements, including the Club for Growth, Americans for Legal Immigration, the Family Research Council, Gun Owners of America, Indiana Right to Life, FreedomWorks, Citizens United, and the Tea Party Express. Tea party heroes Sarah Palin, Michele Bachmann, and Herman Cain are backing him, as well as many Republican State Central Committee members and GOP County Chairs.

Mourdock’s assault on Lugar is two-pronged: That the incumbent is not conservative enough at a time when the tea party movement has pushed Republicans to the right. And that Lugar has long since become out of touch with his home state, captured by the dazzle of Washington and issues many Hoosiers don’t connect with (like working things out with Russia on strategic weaponry).

“Hoosiers want more than a globe-trotting Senator, they want a Senator who routinely holds town hall meetings not to talk but to listen,” Mourdock said in announcing his Senate candidacy 15 months ago. “They want a Senator who will walk the parade routes, visit the county fairs and festivals, and who will eat pork tenderloin and an ear of corn. They told me over and over again that they want a Senator who comes back home.”

It was an effective political image – especially when it came out that Lugar hadn’t maintained an Indiana residence for years.

After saying nice things about both candidates, Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels has endorsed Lugar, as has the GOP’s 2008 presidential candidate Sen. John McCain and Wall Street Journal columnist and former Reagan speech writer Peggy Noonan.

“The Senate needs grown-ups,” Ms. Noonan wrote the other day in defending Lugar’s moderate record. “Right now, and more than ever, we need mature folk involved in our governance, people for whom not everything is new. People who know how to do things, who began studying a complicated issue 25 years ago and have kept up, who know it backward and forward. People who know the ways of the chamber backward and forward, and who know how to talk across the aisle.”

Is that a strong enough argument for Lugar? Recent poll numbers have brought good news for Mourdock.

The Howey/DePauw Indiana Battleground Poll of likely voters in Tuesday’s primary released Friday puts Lugar 10 points behind, trailing Mourdock 38 percent to 48 percent.

In a piece headlined “It’s starting to look over for Dick Lugar,” Salon’s Steve Kornacki predicts that the “real significance of a Lugar loss would extend far beyond November.”

“How will watching yet another prominent Republican with a solidly conservative record lose in a primary affect the mindset of average Republican member of Congress?” Kornacki writes. “Chances are, it will make him or her even more resistant to taking any action, big or small, that might possibly be construed as ideologically disloyal.”

As is often the case, turnout Tuesday will be key – especially since independents can vote as well as registered Republicans.

"Man, the million-dollar question is: Who gets energized by this?" professor Leslie Lenkowsky of Indiana University told the Indiana Star. "The tea party people are already whipped into a lather, so you can't get more excited than they are now. The kind of slow, sober-minded traditional Republican may decide that it's time to go the polls and bring a friend."

How much do you know about the Tea Party? A quiz.

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