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GOP infighting gives Democrats hope of picking up Indiana Senate seat

In the 2010 midterm elections, the GOP was jarred by an array of suddenly-potent Tea Party-backed challengers taking on the party establishment. The movement achieved mixed results overall, but resulted in a Republican Party heavily influenced by it.

History is repeating itself in Indiana where one of the Senate’s two longest-serving Republicans, Richard Lugar, 80, who was first elected in 1976, is facing a challenge in the May 8 primary from state Treasurer Richard Mourdock, who became famous in 2009 for opposing the auto industry bailout and the forced write-downs for Chrysler bond holders. 

Mourdock is backed by Tea Party activists, the Club for Growth, the National Rifle Association, and old-line social conservatives like Phyllis Schlafly.

As Lugar struggles to fend off Mourdock’s challenge, Democrats hope their candidate, Rep. Joe Donnelly, will profit from the GOP schism and pick up the incumbent’s seat in November.

Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said Wednesday, “The race is very close now and it’ll be decided on May 8 and a number of factors could apply. Obviously turnout is important. Gov. (Mitch) Daniels’s ad supporting Sen. Lugar is a very positive development for him,” he said. “But our job is to hold the seat (in November) and we’ll support the nominee in the general election, but I think we will hold that seat regardless of what happens in the primary.”

A Lugar loss would end the political career of a man who was first elected in 1964 to the Indianapolis school board and who in the 1970s was known as “Richard Nixon’s favorite mayor” when he held that office in Indianapolis. Since taking his Senate seat in 1977, Lugar has become his party’s cerebral foreign policy expert.  

Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn. who serves alongside Lugar on the Foreign Relations Committee, said “the knowledge that Sen. Lugar has – having worked on these issues for decades – has been invaluable ... Certainly he’s someone who’s very respected in the Senate and he’s listened to by both sides of the aisle.”

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But no matter how deeply respected Lugar is on Capitol Hill, Mourdock’s charge is that Lugar isn’t conservative enough – although Lugar’s lifetime rating from the American Conservative Union, based on dozens of roll call votes, is 77 out 100, putting him a long way from Senate GOP centrists such as Olympia Snowe of Maine, who has a 48.5 lifetime ACU rating.

Mourdock’s campaign ads regularly link Lugar with Democratic President Barack Obama. Early in Obama’s Senate stint, Lugar helped him establish his foreign policy credentials. In 2005 Obama accompanied Lugar on a trip to Russia, Ukraine, and Azerbaijan to inspect weapons dumps and sites where smallpox and other pathogens were kept.

“When Dick Lugar moved to Washington, he left behind his conservative Hoosier values,” Mourdock says in one of his television spots. “How else to explain his support for amnesty, for Obama’s liberal Supreme Court choices, even his vote to bail out Greece?”

An ad the NRA has run against Lugar tells viewers that, “Some things shouldn’t change. Our Indiana values, stewardship of the land, and the protection of our Second Amendment and hunting rights. 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.”

The NRA grievance against Lugar goes way back: he voted for Bill Clinton’s 1993 Brady handgun bill and for the ban on certain semiautomatic weapons, called “assault weapons” by gun control advocates.

Lugar, always avuncular and courteous, told reporters this week in Washington that his battle with Mourdock is “a very close contest (and) has been throughout.”

Asked about Mourdock’s view that he has changed in his years in Washington, Lugar chuckled amiably and said “I think it’s his view but we’re getting along fine with voters.”

Since last year, Democrats have accused Lugar of being detached from Indiana issues and denounced him for living in Virginia. They gained ammunition when he had to reimburse the Treasury for some hotel stays in Indiana that were charged to his Senate office account. On the residency issue, Lugar said Tuesday, “It was clearly somebody engaging in negative campaign research, trying to find some difficulty.”

Since this is his first primary challenge since 1976, is it difficult since he’s perhaps out of practice? “No,” Lugar replied, “I’ve been campaigning all over the country for the last 35 years and I’m campaigning vigorously again this time ... This is a very vigorous experience and we’re doing the best we can.”

The Republican fratricide in Senate races two years ago had at best mixed results for party leaders.

One of the GOP incumbents, Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, ultimately survived after losing the Republican primary by running in November as a write-in candidate.

Establishment GOP candidates in Arizona, Indiana, New Hampshire, and Missouri defeated their conservative primary opponents and went on to win in November. The party favorite in Washington beat his conservative challenger in the primary, then lost in November.

Elsewhere, conservative challengers forced one GOP senator, Robert Bennett, into retirement in Utah and another, Arlen Specter, into switching parties in Pennsylvania.

Conservative favorites won four Senate seats (in Pennsylvania, Utah, Kentucky, and Florida), but lost to Democrats in four other Senate contests (Delaware, Connecticut, Nevada, and Colorado) – races which more mainstream Republican candidates might have won.

One of the Establishment GOP victims of the Tea Party surge in 2010, was former Rep. Mike Castle of Delaware, who lost to Christine O’Donnell – who then was defeated by Democrat Chris Coons in November.

Castle is now a partner with the DLA Piper law firm.

Reflecting on the parallels with his bitter loss to O’Donnell two years ago, Castle said if Lugar loses the primary, “it has the effect of making it more and more difficult for people who take middle-of-the-road positions, who try to work with both sides of the aisle to get things done ... .”

The Tea Party trend puts such pragmatism, Castle said, “at jeopardy in the Republican Party ... It moves the party not just further to the right, but to a much more conservative stance than it used to have. It’s going to ultimately lead to a minority status in the country.”

Pointing to the danger of Mourdock winning the primary but losing to Donnelly in November, Castle said that for Indiana Republicans, Lugar “may not be 100 percent what they might want, but the alternative is you may elect somebody from the other party.”

Castle’s campaign fund has given $1,000 to Lugar’s campaign.

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Seeing the race from a different angle, South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint, whose Senate Conservatives PAC supported O’Donnell against Castle and Sharron Angle in Nevada in 2010, said, “Richard is a friend of mine – but of course, we’ve got two Richards in that race. Dick Lugar is a friend of mine, but I’d be honored to serve with Mourdock. He’s clearly someone who is in line with some of the things we’re trying to do,” but he added, “I’m not going to get involved” in the Lugar versus Mourdock primary. “I’m not involved in any incumbent races right now.”

Meanwhile Democrats are waiting to take on the survivor of the GOP primary. "While Joe Donnelly has been focused on jobs and the economy, both Richard Mourdock and Dick Lugar have spent the last year slinging mud, pandering to the Tea Party, and showing voters that they're both of touch with Indiana's middle class. Joe's candidacy gives us an excellent chance of winning in November regardless of who Republicans nominate," said Shripal Shah, a spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

Despite the Democrats touting Donnelly's chances, there are echoes of Indiana’s 2010 Senate race when Democrats had hopes for former Rep. Brad Ellsworth, a centrist Democrat with a voting record much like Donnelly's.

Ellsworth ended up losing by 14 percentage points to Republican Dan Coats. Democrats say 2012 isn't 2010; turnout this year is going to be significantly higher and the economy is healthier now than it was in 2010.

But Donnelly voted for the Obama health care bill and for his stimulus plan, neither of which will help with conservative voters in Indiana. And his fund-raising has been less than stellar.  

Democrats privately say that Donnelly runs stronger against Mourdock than against Lugar.

“Yeah, I understand that,” Cornyn said. “Sen. Lugar is a legend in Indiana. To show how quickly things change, six years ago, he was uncontested in the Republican primary and in the general election ... But it will probably make it more of a contest if Sen. Lugar is not the nominee, but I’m confident we’ll hold the seat.” Cornyn said the Indiana race “is not one of my worries.”