Indiana's Longest Serving Senator Faces Challenge of His Life in Next Tuesday's Primary

May 2, 2012

Indiana's Republican Senate Primary is next Tuesday, and it's drawing national attention. For the first time in decades, Senator Richard Lugar is facing a primary challenger. The person opposing Lugar is State Treasurer Richard Mourdock, a conservative with backing from local and national Tea Party organizations. Despite the fact that Lugar has maintained a very conservative voting record since entering the Senate in 1977, Mourdock and his supporters say Lugar is out of touch with ordinary Indiana voters, and not conservative enough for many Indiana Republicans.

To get a sense of how the final days before the primary are playing out, WKU Public Radio turned to our source for political analysis in the Hoosier State, Robert Dion. Dr. Dion is a University of Evansville Political Science Professor.

WKU Public Radio: Tell us about the image Richard Lugar cuts in Indiana.

Robert Dion: "For a long time, Richard Lugar has developed a reputation as a moderate in the Senate. In some respects, it's probably overstated, because he's got a long-standing conservative record. He's got a lifetime rating from the American Conservative Union that's close to 80. So, by any measure, he's a conservative Senator.

"But over the years he's worked with people on the other side of the aisle in the Senate, and on certain occasions he's stood up against Presidents in his own party, most notably Ronald Reagan on foreign policy matters. So he's carved out a reputation has someone who is thoughtful, deliberate, willing to work with people on both sides. And in a normal year, under a normal set of circumstances, that would be something that anybody could be proud of.

"But in a time of really heightened party polarization, where working with the other side is not seen as something to be applauded, he's put himself in a position where he could be attacked from the right, and clearly that's what's happening now."

Give us a sense of exactly how unusual it is that Richard Lugar is facing a serious primary challenger.

"He ran unopposed by any major party nominee last time around, and coasted to victory with over 80% of the vote. The idea that he's fighting off a primary challenge is something that would have been hard to envision a few years ago.

"The last time he had a primary was literally a generation ago."

And how has Sen. Lugar's campaign responded by being challenged so forcefully by Richard Mourdock, the State Treasurer?

"Richard Mourdock came forward with his challenge, and he really surprised the political world by racking up lots of support from a majority of county Republican chairs across Indiana. He surprised a lot of people by the vigor of his challenge to Lugar.

"Sen. Lugar's campaign also responded very vigorously, and they gave every appearance of seeing the challenge, acknowledging the vigor of the challenge, and organizing effectively.

"But then he got totally waylaid by a very embarrassing challenge to his state residency, when it was revealed that he no longer owns a home in the state. It's been a generation since he's owned a home in Indiana, and it came out that he stays in hotels when he visits the state he represents in Washington.

"All of that stuff was an enormous distraction, and the more he tried to explain it in legalistic terms, by referring to Attorney General decisions that said that what he was doing was technically legal--it just brought further attention to the nagging sense that Lugar is someone who has spent the better part of the last generation in Washington."

Has there been any sort of last-minute, intense advertising blitz from either of the candidates ahead of Tuesday's vote?

"Some of the support Richard Lugar might have expected is drying up. There was a Super PAC that's already spent about $700,000 supporting him and attacking Richard Mourdock, and they've actually canceled their last ad buy in the state in the waning days of the campaign.

"The PAC said in a release that they wanted to see how the vote plays out.

"So the pro-Lugar PACs are pulling their money out, and the pro-Mourdock PACs are doubling-down."