Indiana Tea Party activists have set their sights on a political institution — Sen. Richard Lugar —contending that the six-term Republican senator has strayed from conservative values.
The challenge to the 79-year-old Lugar is expected to be formalized Saturday, when many of the state’s Tea Party and “patriot” groups meet in Greenfield, Ind., at an event aimed at promoting a challenger in next year’s GOP primary.
Taking on Lugar, who has such standing that he faced no opposition in 2006, is a bold move and one that could backfire and create an opening for a Democrat to win the seat, some observers say.
“Indiana is a microcosm of the current conflict in America between establishment Republicans and Tea Party activists,” said Robert Schmuhl, a professor of American Studies and Journalism at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind. “You see this (in this Senate race). But how coordinated and organized these activists might be bears scrutiny, as 2012 approaches.”
Saturday’s event was organized by a group called Hoosiers for a Conservative Senate, which gathered Tea Party and so-called patriot groups from around the state for its first meeting in January. The organization was set up for the sole purpose of replacing Lugar with a more conservative Republican candidate in primaries, and says it will cease to exist after that has been accomplished. In is instead supporting the only Republican challenger to come forward, Indiana State Treasurer Richard Mourdock.
“Sen. Lugar’s vote (to support) the liberal judges (President Barack Obama’s Supreme Court nominees Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor) is what made me say, ‘I can’t say silent anymore,’” said Monica Boyer, a co-founder of Hoosiers for a Conservative Senate. She also heads a Tea Party-affiliated group in her home county named “Kosciusko Silent No More.”
But Lugar’s judicial votes are hardly the only cause for complaint. Among other things, the conservative Indiana activists are angry that he:
• Voted in favor of 2008 legislation that created the controversial Troubled Asset Relief Program, or TARP, which pumped billions of dollars into ailing banks and financial institutions during the 2008 financial crisis.
• Supported Obama’s renewal of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, or START, with Russia. The original START was an agreement between the former USSR and the United States during the presidency of Ronald Reagan.
• Failed to back an amendment that would have eased restrictions on carrying concealed weapons.
• Co-sponsored with Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., the DREAM Act(Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors) in 2009, legislation that would have create a path to permanent residency for students who came to the U.S. illegally as children.
Hoosiers for a Conservative Senate politely expressed its intention to send Lugar packing in a letter to the senator that thanked him for 46 years of public service and asked him to retire:
“We have decided to be proactive and reverse the progressive movement by steering Indiana back on the course of what our Founding Fathers envisioned,” it read. “So it is with great respect that we convey to you that we cannot and will not support you in the May 2012 primary election and ask you to gracefully consider retirement at the conclusion of your current term.”
Boyer said 54 groups have registered to send 2 representatives each to vote in Saturday’s straw poll, and observers would be allowed in the gallery of the venue. FreedomWorks, a Washington, D.C., group that helps organize Tea Party efforts in key elections, including Sharron Angle’s successful 2010 primary bid for Senate in Nevada, also plans to send representatives to the event.
Mourdock will be on hand for his expected coronation, but Lugar reportedly declined his invitation. Andrew Horning, a Libertarian candidate who recently announced a run for the seat, was not invited.
Saturday’s event hasn’t been embraced by all Tea Party-affiliated groups in Indiana.
Some have backed away from the event and the organization behind it, noting that Hoosiers for a Conservative Senate’s status as a 501(c)3 nonprofit prohibits it from endorsing candidates.
To address that concern, the group billed the event into a “straw poll,” as opposed to a nominating convention, but that still crosses the line for some.
“Tea Parties should be about education, not manipulation and persuasion,” said Anna Kroyman, founder of the White County Tea Party Patriots, which initially joined the "Hoosiers" effort but later withdrew.
Kroyman said she also was perturbed by some of the rhetoric against Lugar. The White County group has hosted an array of candidates to address members, including Lugar, and Kroyman insists on good behavior.
“The fierce attacks on Richard Lugar caused a lot fighting among Tea Parties,” she said. “Even though most of us will vote for Mourdock … (Lugar) is a sitting senator.”
One reason Boyer cited for starting Hoosiers for a Conservative Senate was to avoid splitting votes among Tea Party candidates, as happened in the 2010 Senate race. That resulted in a win for the establishment Republican, Dan Coats.
But it’s hard -- even for some who agree with the mission -- to take the “straw poll” seriously, since the only two candidates on the ballot will be Mourdock and Lugar.
“I have been told there are some Lugar votes coming,” said Boyer, in defense of the process. “So I won’t call it a done deal.”
Mourdock remains a long shot against Lugar, who has far better funding and deep connections in Indiana. Mourdock has twice been elected state treasurer, but lost several other races and his fundraising has so far been anemic. The Lugar campaign has $3.5 million in its war chest compared to Mourdock’s $215,000.
But a poll early in the campaign showed Mourdock within hailing distance of the incumbent, with 31 percent support compared to 45 percent for Lugar.
And the Lugar campaign is taking the challenge seriously.
“It’s more the environment that’s out there,” said David Willkie, political director for the Lugar campaign, referring to strong anti-incumbent sentiment among voters. “For Richard Mourdock, you could insert the dog catcher and have the same result.”
Even though the primary is eight months out, the Lugar campaign made 25,000 calls to constituents last week and more than 170,000 in total, Willkie said.
He also said Lugar has reached out to many Tea Party groups and found that he does have support among many staunch conservatives.
“This is not a unified group. There are multiple flavors of tea,” said Willkie.
In fact, the Lugar campaign will attend a competing Tea Party event in Hamilton County on Saturday, where, Willkie said, “We have been invited with open arms.”
But as Lugar battles his Tea Party detractors, Democrats are eyeing his seat for the first time in years. Rep. Joe Donnelly, D-Ind., has announced plans to run for Lugar's seat after Republican votes were added to his already divided district via redistricting.
“He’s a blue-dog Democrat,” Schmuhl, the Notre Dame professor, said of Donnelly, adding that he could stand a chance “if Lugar were to be bloodied in the primary.”
The question, he added, is "will the ongoing internal strife strengthen or weaken the GOP?”