Odds Are Against Lugar in Bid for Seventh Term

by Stuart Rothenberg April 4, 2011 · 9:00 AM EDT

Six-term Indiana Sen. Dick Lugar ended 2010 with more than $2.3 million in the bank. Unfortunately for Lugar, his war chest is about the only reason to think that he might have a chance of winning a seventh term next year.

The 78-year-old (he turns 79 on Monday) Republican has put together a remarkable and admirable career of public service, starting in 1964, when he was elected to the Indianapolis School Board. He went on to serve as mayor of Indianapolis before winning federal office.

Lugar ran unsuccessfully for the Senate against Birch Bayh in 1974, the horrendous Watergate election year for Republicans, and he won his current Senate seat in 1976, also a tough year for most GOP candidates. He hasn’t had a tough re-election since 1982, when he was held to 54 percent in another bad year for Republicans.

An abortive run for president in 1995 only strengthened Lugar’s reputation as a thoughtful legislator and expert on both foreign policy and agriculture who lacked anything close to charisma and pizzazz.

The 1998 edition of Congressional Quarterly’s Politics in America called his speeches as a presidential candidate both “meaty and serious” and “plodding and colorless.”

But Lugar’s style isn’t a huge liability in Indiana, which elects low-key people such as former Sen. Evan Bayh (D), Sen. Dan Coats (R) and Gov. Mitch Daniels (R), not colorful characters such as Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Al Franken (D-Minn.) and former Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura (I).

An American Viewpoint poll conducted for the Senator in October showed him with high favorable and low unfavorable ratings, and in 2006 Indiana Democrats didn’t even nominate someone to run against him.

Unfortunately for Lugar, things have changed in Indiana as they have elsewhere. The fact that he lives in Virginia surely will become an issue in his bid for re-election, while the fact that he was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2000 or was a Rhodes scholar probably means little now.

In fact, Lugar’s emphasis on crafting legislation to attract broad support, his efforts to solve problems in ways that go beyond knee-jerk left-right approaches and his disinclination toward sharp, polarizing rhetoric leave him increasingly vulnerable in this day and age.

Moreover, instead of ingratiating himself with conservatives and the tea party, Lugar has been more than willing to poke them in the eye, as he did when he supported Senate approval of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty and the DREAM Act, opposed the ban on earmarks, and expressed support for the assault weapons ban.

Last cycle, when I interviewed then-candidate Coats, a mainstream conservative never known as an ideologue or one of the Senate’s more intense partisans, I was surprised how readily and heartily he embraced the tea party movement.

Lugar, in contrast, has been dismissive of the tea party, refusing to back off of his longtime agenda or pander to conservatives with his votes or his rhetoric.

Lugar’s stubbornness — or dedication to principle, if you prefer — has earned him a formidable primary opponent and the opposition of three-quarters of GOP county chairmen, who already are backing state Treasurer Richard Mourdock.

Mourdock, who will almost certainly be Lugar’s main primary opponent, is wooing conservatives, including tea party activists, who aren’t likely to make the same mistake that they did in 2010, when multiple tea party primary candidates divided the conservative vote and handed Coats the nomination.

But the state treasurer’s profile isn’t that of a pure outsider. Not only does he begin with the support of dozens of GOP county leaders, but he has been running for office and serving in government for years.

Mourdock ran for Congress in 1990 and 1992 before winning election to the Vanderburgh County Commission in the mid-1990s. He served there until 2002. Four years later, he was elected state treasurer, and last year he was re-elected to that office.

Still, his campaign website bio clearly portrays him in an ideological light: “A solid conservative, Richard is a popular speaker at Republican events and Tea Party rallies alike. Richard’s conservative message of constitutionally limited government was heard by over one million people during the 9-12 March on Washington in 2009.”

Mourdock’s Senate website also includes a “Lugar vs. Mourdock” section that portrays Lugar as a far-left admirer and supporter of President Barack Obama.

The section includes some accurate and fair information, but it also has its share of outrageous and over-the-top assertions that are obviously misleading.

For example, in asserting that “Lugar appeared in a campaign television advertisement for Obama during the 2008 presidential election,” it clearly misleads the reader to believe that Lugar offered some sort of testimonial for Obama. The truth is that Obama’s campaign used Lugar’s image in a TV spot about nuclear proliferation to present Obama in a bipartisan light and to tap the Republican’s reputation for thoughtfulness.

Whatever you think of Mourdock’s characterization of Lugar’s record, the Senator’s 35-year career in the chamber gives the challenger plenty of ammunition in a primary. Given the direction of the GOP these days and the public’s continued desire of change, it would be a stunning achievement if Lugar were to win renomination next year in a one-on-one race.