Can The Tea Party Tackle Richard Lugar?
Can the Tea Party knock off another incumbent Republican senator? That is the storyline playing out in Indiana, where six term Senator Richard (Dick) Lugar is in a primary battle with state treasurer Richard Mourdock.
The Tea Party played a pivotal role in the 2010 Republican primary season. Its support helped Pat Toomey win the GOP nomination over longtime incumbent Arlen Specter. In Florida, Marco Rubio thwarted Gov. Charlie Crist’s effort to move from the governor’s mansion to Washington. And in Utah, Mike Lee toppled longtime incumbent Bob Bennett on his way to winning a Senate seat at age 39.
Other tea-partiers shocked the political world by winning the GOP nomination, though they came up short in the general election. Sharron Angle won the Nevada primary and gave Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid the fight of his life. And in Delaware, Christine O’Donnell beat Mike Castle, a former governor who had won nine successive statewide House races (Delaware has one at-large seat in the House of Representatives).
Tea Party energy carried over into the Hoosier state as well. Republicans came storming back there in 2010, two years after Barack Obama carried the state on his way to the presidency. Republicans won every statewide contest in the midterm elections. They picked up two congressional seats and took Evan Bayh’s Senate seat, when the moderate Democrat chose to retire rather than face an uphill re-election battle. Conservative Dan Coats crushed his Democratic challenger in the general election.
This was not a surprising result, after the liberal agenda Democrats enacted in the 111th Congress. Indiana, after all, is a pretty red state. Barack Obama was the first Democratic to carry the state in a presidential race since Lyndon Johnson’s landslide 1964 election. Here’s a brief description of the state, provided by Real Clear Politics:
Indiana is an anomaly in many ways. Unlike northern tier states such as Minnesota and Michigan, large portions of the state have a Southern heritage; unlike Ohio and Illinois, it lacks a massive industrial super-city that drew in scores of Eastern and Southern European immigrants around the turn of the century. Because of this, its politics have been very different from those of other Great Lakes states. In the late 19th and early 20th century, it was the most Democratic Great Lakes state. Today, it is the most heavily Republican.
And in 2011, being a Republican is synonymous with being a conservative. That’s a problem for longtime incumbent Richard Lugar, seen as a moderate by most observers. He’s certainly not regarded as a “real conservative” by the GOP base.
They point to the American Conservative Union, which ranked Lugar the 4th most liberal Republican in a 2010 report. National Journal also put him as the 4th most liberal senator in a recent report.
Lugar is out-of-step with the Tea Party zeitgeist, to be sure. He is a big supporter of farm subsidies, opposes a ban on earmarks, wants a higher minimum wage, endorses stricter gun-control, voted for TARP, and has voiced support for the DREAM act, which conservatives view as de-facto amnesty for illegal immigrants.
Lugar is also a friend of President Obama and served as the president’s mentor when Obama joined the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 2005. When Obama ran for president, he said his foreign policy views were shaped by Dick Lugar.
Since Obama became commander-in-chief, Lugar has supported many of his foreign policy initiatives, most notably the START treaty (an arms control accord) with the Russians. Critics claimed this was détente all over again, and did nothing to reign in an increasingly despotic regime and its bellicose leader, Vladimir Putin.
Lugar must do all he can to run away from Obama because Richard Mourdock made his name by taking the Obama administration to court over its handling of the Chrysler bailout. Conservatives were furious about the decision, which gave preferential treatment to the UAW (an unsecured creditor) in the decision. Mourdock got involved when some of his constituents’ (Indiana teachers and state police; both secure creditors) benefits were cheated by the administration’s move.
This February, Mourdock announced he would challenge the six term incumbent after Lugar came out against a ban on earmarks. Immediately the challenger earned the support of 68 Indiana county chairmen (out of 92) and last month, won a Tea Party straw poll 96-1. The Right has every reason to support Mourdock: he is with them on social issues and is simpatico with Grover Nordquist’s pledge, which will never raise taxes anytime, anywhere.
And Lugar is ripe for the picking. He has never faced a serious challenge; in his six Senate wins, he has averaged 69% of the vote. Democrats didn’t bother to run against him in the 2006 cycle, a year where they were triumphant around the country and retook Congress for the first time in a dozen years.
But the power of incumbency may protect Lugar from this insurgent challenge.
The great power of incumbency is name recognition: Lugar is known by all Hoosiers after spending over four decades in public office. First elected mayor of Indianapolis at age 35, he has spent over half his life in civic life. He won his Senate seat in 1976 and has served in Washington for thirty-five years.
Incumbency also gives the officeholder a leg up in raising campaign funds. Money, after all, is the mother’s milk of politics. Lugar has a huge lead in the fundraising race (up 12 to 1 by a recent account). ¾ of the money he raised between July and September came from big donors, which consist of individual contributions over $200.
Finally, he has the support of the Republican Capitol Hill establishment. Both Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and John Cornyn, the Texas senator and head of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, have backed Lugar. Indiana governor Mitch Daniels has done so as well.
Even conservative darlings like Jim Demint have not embraced Mourdock. Demint has remained neutral in the race; Lugar mentored Demint early in the South Carolinan’s time in the Senate.
There are over four months until primary day, but Richard Mourdock has his work cut out for him if he wishes to supplant Lugar as his state’s next GOP senate nominee. The challenger has the Tea Party enthusiasm behind him, but Lugar will not be easy to take down. Can Mourdock break through in 2012? We’ll have to wait and see.