Facing Conservative Onslaught, Dick Lugar Fights For His Life In Indiana

Dick Lugar, the six-term Republican Senator from Indiana, is locked in the fight of his political life, fending off a vigorous challenge from conservative groups angry at his cooperation with President Obama. And just as they did in Nevada, Colorado, and Delaware in 2010, those groups risk losing a Senate seat for their Republican Party in the name of ideological purity.

Having not faced a primary fight since 1976, Lugar is gearing up for a slugfest over the next few weeks with his challenger, State Treasurer Richard Mourdock. But with a healthy bank account and all the other advantages of incumbency, Lugar’s far more concerned about the fiscally conservative Club For Growth and National Rifle Association pounding him with negative TV ads.

“Some things shouldn’t change,” begins an NRA spot airing statewide on broadcast and cable stations. “But over his 36 years in Washington, Dick Lugar has changed. He’s become the only Republican candidate in Indiana with an “F” rating from the NRA.”

A Howey Politics/DePauw Indiana Battleground Poll conducted March 26-28 found Lugar ahead in the primary by five points, 42 to 35 percent. But while the same poll showed Lugar crushing the Democratic candidate, Congressman Joe Donnelly, by a huge margin, Mourdock broke dead even with him at 35 percent.

The race, then, could prove another instance of the Club for Growth and Tea Party overreaching, choosing a candidate beloved by hardcore Republicans but despised by the broad center of the electorate. In 2010, they backed Sharron Angle in Nevada, who went on to lose to the unpopular incumbent, Democratic Majority Leader Harry Reid, because he portrayed her as outside the mainstream. Likewise, Tea Party-backed Ken Buck in Colorado and Christine O’Donnell in Delaware were weak candidates in what might have been fertile territory for Republican gains.

Conservatives are angry at Lugar, though, for his support of the bank bailout in 2008, Obama’s New START treaty with Russia, and the president’s Supreme Court nominees. The 80-year-old veteran legislator, having already worked with Obama in the Senate on nuclear proliferaton in 2006, has reacted to his presidency with a bit less hysteria than many in his party. And that’s a big problem.

“We are grateful for Lugar’s long years of service to Indiana,” Greg Fettig, a landscaper who heads Hoosiers for a Conservative Senate, a Tea Party umbrella group leading the charge against Lugar, told Reuters. “But he has moved too far to the left and has to go.”

Lugar’s television ads are clearly intended to buttress his credentials as an enemy of the president; one recent spot brags that he voted against the president’s heath care law, ‘Obamacare,’ 32 times.

But he is the product of a bygone era when senators collaborated on tough issues and brokered compromises that drew the ire of their party bases. Now that the GOP grassroots is energized and has the Tea Party and other outside national groups to provide logistical support, elderly Republican statesmen are a dying breed. Just ask Bob Bennett, the seasoned Utah senator who was tossed out in the Tea Party wave two years ago.

One friend who could save Lugar: Governor  Mitch Daniels, who worked for Lugar when he was mayor of Indianapolis in the 1960s and asked him to be godfather to one of his children. Daniels has star power and credibility with the Republican base.

“It’s ironic and it’s just inaccurate to suggest that somehow he’s not very strongly Republican in his viewpoints,” Daniels told The New York Times.

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