Richard Mourdock, a Republican and Indiana’s treasurer, wants to wrest his party’s U.S. Senate nomination from a six-term incumbent who has been a national figure since becoming mayor of this city in 1968 at age 35, who has averaged 69 percent of the vote in five reelections and who ran unopposed by a Democrat in 2006. When Richard Lugar, an Eagle Scout and Rhodes scholar, was a naval ensign, he briefed Dwight Eisenhower. That was 10 presidents ago, which may be a problem for Lugar in an era of pandemic disparagement of the political class. So Mourdock will try to defeat Lugar with wounding praise: Lugar is a great chapter of Indiana history, but elections are arguments about the future.
And the good luck of two of Lugar’s colleagues is Lugar’s misfortune and Mourdock’s opportunity. Some national conservative groups that relish intraparty fights had hoped to fund primary challenges to Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch (another six-termer), Maine Sen. Olympia Snowe and Lugar. But the strongest potential challenger to Hatch opted not to run, and no strong challenger to Snowe has emerged, so the conservatives’ restless energies may be focused on Lugar.
It is not clear why. Congressional Quarterly, assessing 760 votes over the eight Reagan years, said Lugar supported the president 88 percent of the time — more than any other senator. Yes, Lugar voted for Barack Obama’s two Supreme Court nominees, but there is a conservative case to be made (conservatives make it when they have the presidency) for deference as the default position regarding presidents’ judicial choices. Yes, Lugar voted for the New START treaty, but all living Republican ex-secretaries of state supported it, including George Shultz, who served Ronald Reagan. Shultz has endorsed Lugar (“Reagan relied on him”).
Lugar has cast almost 13,000 Senate votes, so everyone has something about which to complain, and almost every conservative particularly dislikes one vote, that for the Troubled Assets Relief Program. The political center — of the nation and the GOP — has moved rightward since Lugar became a senator in 1977, and in 2010 the American Conservative Union rated Lugar the fifth most liberal Republican senator, and the National Journal ranked him the fourth. This, even though he opposed the stimulus, cap-and-trade (Indiana is a coal state), Obamacare and Dodd-Frank, is pro-life and has voted eight times for a balanced-budget amendment to the Constitution.
Mourdock, however, earned the admiration of national conservatives, and of people who are partial to the rule of law, when he rightly, if unsuccessfully, contested in court the terms of Obama’s Chrysler bailout. Indiana’s pension funds for teachers and state police were among Chrysler’s secured creditors. It had been settled law that such creditors are first in line to be paid in the event of bankruptcy. But in the Chrysler case, secured creditors received less per dollar than an unsecured creditor, the United Auto Workers.
Lugar’s courtliness and Midwestern aversion to rhetorical flamboyance do not match this moment of fevered politics. So this race will take the temperature of a fundamentally temperate state that Obama carried in 2008 by a wafer-thin margin (28,391 votes). In what may be Lugar’s principal vulnerability, some Hoosiers think that with his many foreign policy interests — he has been, and could again be, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee — he has neglected Indiana: The day Mourdock announced his challenge, a large majority of the 92 Republican county chairmen endorsed him.
Lugar’s campaign has more than 12 times as much cash on hand as Mourdock’s, but money is not always very salient: It can buy an unknown candidate recognition, but Lugar is recognized by almost every Indianan. It cannot buy intensity, which often is disproportionately important in intraparty squabbles. Mourdock will tap Tea Party passion, and in the May 8 primary, Rep. Mike Pence, a favorite of conservatives, will be seeking, and probably winning, the Republican nomination for governor, which will bring out conservative voters susceptible to Mourdock’s arguments. Lugar is godfather to a daughter of Gov. Mitch Daniels, who got his start in politics working for Mayor Lugar and then as Sen. Lugar’s first chief of staff. Daniels has endorsed Lugar but speaks warmly of Mourdock.
Mourdock, 60, recently ran a marathon, perhaps underscoring one (small) difference with Lugar, who will be 80 by primary day but still runs 5K races. At the event announcing his candidacy, Mourdock asked for a round of applause for Lugar, who will be replaced, or awarded a seventh term, respectfully.