COLUMBUS, Ind. — The lead story in the morning paper had delivered just the latest kick in the shins to Richard G. Lugar in the hottest Senate primary in the country. “Like many Senate Republicans who have spent a few decades in Washington,” it said, “U.S. Senator Richard Lugar was for the individual health mandate before he was against it.”
Yet a far worse sign for Lugar, who turned 80 this week, was that nobody at the Rotary Club luncheon where he was speaking asked him about the story — or about the controversy over whether he has a legal address in Indiana, where he last owned a home in 1977.
Instead, the Q&A that followed his remarks was about the geopolitics of food security and his early days running his family’s black walnut farm. It was not just polite, but too polite, especially this close to the May 8 primary.
How does polling work?
Is super-PAC money good or bad?
Will the Ryan budget pass, do you think?
Sure, this was Rotary, not “Hardball.” But even here, tougher questions would have suggested that voters were still deciding between the icon and his challenger, State Treasurer Richard Mourdock, a tea party favorite.
After 35 years in office, the congenitally centrist Lugar — who opposed the Affordable Care Act and supports the Keystone pipeline but doesn’t pound on President Obama — is polling just ahead of Mourdock among Republicans, at 42 percent to 35 percent. But that difference is within the margin of error, and the race is considered a tossup.
Lugar, the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, is a gentleman of the old school, referring to the Affordable Care Act as “so-called Obamacare” in campaign speeches and even correctly identifying Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (Nev.) as a member of the Democratic, rather than “Democrat,” Party. At a time when Republicans routinely insist on denying Democrats that courtesy, hearing the proper usage from a Republican’s lips is a reminder of how unusual it has become.
Yet if the question is whether Lugar is too mild for this highly polarized moment, his answer has not been to reinvent himself. Instead, his pitch about making the world safer by helping African farmers get better yields is a double shot of decaf, resolutely out of sync with the anger of the times.
The ad war here is well funded but within bounds, with Lugar accused of being open to raising the gas tax at one point, which is true, and Mourdock of counting on outside money, also true.
The race is, however, unpredictable, as a result of that outside money, from groups including the Club for Growth and FreedomWorks, both of which are supporting Mourdock. The governorship and Senate seats in Indiana, in the middle of the country and the middle of the political spectrum, tend to swing back and forth between the parties, and a Mourdock victory could open a path for moderate Democrat Joe Donnelly, a congressman from South Bend who narrowly won reelection in his bellwether district two years ago.
Mourdock, the primary challenger who threatens to end Lugar’s long career, is an introverted 60-year-old geologist who hates parties and loves riding motorcycles and running marathons. He is a bomb-thrower only by Hoosier standards.
Most Saturdays since October, Mourdock has been knocking on doors, asking registered Republicans to vote for him in the primary — although his natural inclination is hermetic, and by his own account he’d prefer to be doing “something normal.”
On a recent such outing, in his home territory in Evansville, in southern Indiana, he got a generally positive reception and only one outright no. “It’s time for a change,” said Dianne Hensley, who promised him her vote. “Even I had to retire.”
Over coffee later at the Donut Bank, the compact, quiet challenger described himself as a thoroughly reluctant politician, although he has been campaigning pretty much nonstop since 1988 — and made three unsuccessful runs for a House seat. In 2010, however, he improbably led his party’s ticket, even from way down ballot, and as state treasurer he has some establishment as well as tea party support.
To those who first encouraged him to challenge Lugar, he said his reaction was: “What did I ever do to you? That’s an awfully big bus to throw me under.” Not because he thought he couldn’t win, but because he knew he’d have to sacrifice his privacy: “I hate that part of it. My wife and I are very private people, and I know the next 30 days are going to change my life forever. My wife says, ‘What happened to my shy geologist?’ I loved looking through a microscope because it meant I didn’t have to deal with people.”
When a motorcycle roared by, Mourdock looked out the window and said, “That’s what I’d rather be doing” — especially because out on the open road, he’s anonymous. “I have a full-mask helmet, and nobody knows who I am. I have a flaw as a politician — emotionally, for my ego, I don’t have to do this.”
He said he realized years ago that he’d developed a bad habit: “Go to work, go home, watch TV, go to bed,” repeat. With TV eating so many hours and brain cells, “I gave myself the goal of reading 10 pages of history a night” instead, and as a result, he began thinking more about politics.
His eyes filled with tears repeatedly during the interview — when talking about his feelings about his country; his wife, whom he introduces as “Saint Marilyn”; and “all those nights” he pondered a certain quote from Abraham Lincoln, who as a kid spent 14 years in southern Indiana.
“This is essentially a people’s contest,” Lincoln said of the Civil War. “On the side of the Union, it is a struggle for maintaining in the world that form and substance of government whose leading object is to elevate the condition of men . . . to afford all an unfettered start and a fair chance in the race of life.”
Today, as Mourdock sees it, the “government picks winners and losers, and that infuriates me.” How so? With federal bailouts, giveaways and attempts to “give the children of immigrants special rights.” In fact, he says the current moment is strikingly similar to the Civil War era, with the question of the proper role of government dividing Americans.
At bottom, he said, the split is between “those who say, ‘You can’t have my stuff,’ and those who say, ‘I want your stuff,’ though they don’t know that’s what they’re saying.”
Lugar is an artisan of understatement. He told supporters at a fundraiser at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis that “this has not been a very productive period,” in terms of passing a budget, that our dependence on foreign oil has been “lamented by the last five presidents without visible activity,” and that, in his primary race, “we are involved in obviously a very vigorous and strenuous effort.”
He told about 200 old friends at the event that although he understands the public’s anger, anger in itself is no answer: “It takes no talent to flail about,” shouting about jobs, he said, and he held up Indiana training programs inside companies as a model for the country, and Indiana genetically modified seed as a farming model for the world.
Twice during his remarks, he referred to House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) as “Jim Ryan,” and in conclusion, he said he hopes to be around for six months more, when he meant six years.
But after the event, on a barstool in the empty hall outside where the NBA’s Pacers play, he had no trouble articulating why voters should renew his contract: “I believe I can make a significant difference in American foreign policy, ag policy and economic policy. I hope it’s not too grandiose a vision to say we have an opportunity to help people all over the world.” Then he went back to talking about world hunger.
Grandiose, no. But in the primary fight of his life, such talk is as radical in its way as anything tea party or Occupy protesters could write on a sign.
When asked about the controversy over his Indiana residency, he didn’t try to minimize the impact of the issue, but went on a little bit about his awe at the stacks and stacks of news clips on the subject: “It’s all about residency, and almost nothing about the campaign.”
So how did a 35-year member of the Senate wind up using the address of a home he sold in 1977 on his license and voter registration until just recently? The answer was nothing if not old-fashioned.
“At the time I left to serve in the Senate — and I don’t want to go too far with this, but it’s somewhat like going off to the military,” which as a Navy vet he has done, “I followed the legal advice of the AG’’ of Indiana to use the last address he had before his election. Now that he has been cleared to use the address of his family farm, even though he has never lived there, he said, “I was out there yesterday — a sentimental journey — just to make sure no one had destroyed the house, and my son Bob had done a good job cleaning out the rubbish.” The place is impossible to miss, he said with a smile, “because there’s a sign on the gate, Richard G. Lugar, Tree Farmer of the Year, 2005.”
Lugar recently repaid the state the $14,000 that he had charged taxpayers for the hotels he has stayed in during trips to Indiana and said he had no idea that he had been flouting the “arcane” Senate rule that members can’t be compensated for stays within 35 miles of their home — or, in his case, former home.
He not only made no apology for selling his house in Indiana 35 years ago but said that Congress functioned better when more of its members spent enough time in Washington to get to know one another better.
When asked about the much-discussed charge that he “let” Obama use a photo of the two of them together in a 2008 ad in the state, he said facetiously, “Maybe I’m just not alert enough to the possibilities and should have threatened a lawsuit.” More was accomplished, he said, when it was less scandalous to be seen standing next to someone from across the aisle. And if this campaign does turn out to mark the end of Lugar’s long career, no one will be able to say he didn’t stay true to himself in its final weeks.
Melinda Henneberger anchors the She the People blog on washingtonpost.com.