If Lugar Loses, Will Indiana Really Be in Play?

by Stuart Rothenberg March 28, 2012 · 10:09 AM EDT

Now that the Club for Growth and other conservatives groups have decided to make a substantial investment in defeating veteran Indiana Sen. Dick Lugar, and polling suggests a tightening race, it should be pretty clear even to the Senator’s most loyal supporters that he has a very serious fight on his hands.

Lugar’s adversary in the GOP primary, state Treasurer Richard Mourdock, didn’t get off to a fast start. His year-end Federal Election Commission report showed less than $1.3 million raised and only $362,000 in the bank, compared with almost $3.5 million raised and $4 million in the bank for Lugar.

But the involvement of outside groups was always going to be vital to Mourdock’s success, and the inclination of Lugar loyalists to dismiss the possibility that Hoosiers might not renominate a Senator of such longevity and accomplishment has helped the treasurer’s bid.

Even some who have met Mourdock and support his challenge don’t describe him in the most flattering way. “He is kind of gruff, like a curmudgeon. And he doesn’t understand why everyone isn’t fawning over his noble cause against Lugar,” said a political operative who would like to see Lugar retired in the May 8 primary.

For conservatives, it’s not that they are in love with Mourdock. It’s that they simply have had it with Lugar, who seems so out of touch with the current political mood and the shape of American politics that he can’t understand why not owning a residence in Indiana would be a big deal to voters or why earmarks would bother conservatives.

Lugar is up with an ad complaining about the attacks on him and arguing that “Richard Mourdock and his D.C. cronies offer nothing but the politics of personal destruction.”

Veteran Indiana political analyst Brian Howey believes that the criticism of Lugar for staying at hotels when he returns to the state could backfire: “Sen. Lugar has a strong statewide network. He is the top vote-getter in Indiana history. I’m anticipating a backlash against Mourdock.”

The Senator’s critics respond by observing that Howey is clearly in Lugar’s camp. One critic doubted the backlash hypothesis, saying, “Lugar hasn’t gotten hit at all so far. His numbers are terrible without anyone laying a glove on him” in paid advertising.

One Republican strategist not sympathetic to Lugar acknowledges that, unlike former Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter and former Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, “Lugar is a somewhat sympathetic figure in the eyes of voters.” But he adds, “A majority of Republican voters think his time is past.”

Whatever happens in the primary, Lugar, who appears to be the top target of the Club for Growth this cycle, clearly is in a fight for survival.

For weeks, the Indiana Democratic Party has been slamming Lugar, clearly hoping to add to his woes and help Mourdock win the primary. State and national Democrats believe that Lugar’s defeat would put the Indiana Senate race into play for the fall, especially considering the quality of their nominee, Rep. Joe Donnelly.

Howey believes the Mourdock-Donnelly race would start off as a tossup, with the Democrat stressing his Blue Dog credentials, including his conservative positions on abortion and gun control, and appealing to Lugar supporters who believe that the longtime Senator was ill-treated by conservatives.

One experienced GOP observer goes so far as to admit that there would be a period of “turbulence” in the race if Mourdock defeats Lugar in the primary and that the general election initially would look competitive. But over time, he argues, and especially in a presidential year, Republicans would coalesce behind their nominee. That seems right to me.

I have not yet met Mourdock, but from what I hear, he is no Christine O’Donnell or Sharron Angle.

“He isn’t a bomb-thrower,” said one observer, who doesn’t have problems supporting bomb-throwers and seemed disappointed that the state treasurer isn’t more of an ideologue.

Although Howey says that Mourdock “connects with tea party people emotionally,” others portray the state treasurer as merely the beneficiary of the conservative desire to replace Lugar, much as Florida’s Marco Rubio became the beneficiary of Republican rank-and-file dissatisfaction with Crist during the state’s 2010 Senatorial contest.

Donnelly proved his savvy by winning re-election in 2010 even though most Democrats in comparable districts were going down to defeat. He successfully distanced himself from then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and President Barack Obama. In fact, Donnelly voted for fellow Blue Dog Rep. Heath Shuler (N.C.), not Pelosi, to be the party’s leader in the House after the 2010 elections.

But this Senate race looks much tougher for Donnelly, who won election to Congress in the 2006 Democratic wave. Since 1974, the only Democrats to win an Indiana Senate race have been named Bayh (Evan in 1998 and 2004, and Birch in 1974), and while Obama carried Indiana four years ago, he isn’t expected to carry the state this year.

Like unsuccessful 2010 Senate nominee Brad Ellsworth, another moderate Democrat who initially was hyped by national Democrats but went nowhere, Donnelly is known only in the north-central part of the state, and voters outside his Congressional district aren’t likely to give him the benefit of the doubt when he talks about how “independent” he has been from the Obama administration. Republicans certainly have ammunition to tie him to Obama, such as his votes for health care reform, the stimulus and the Troubled Asset Relief Program. Donnelly voted against the Democrats’ cap-and-trade bill.

There is little doubt that Donnelly has a better chance of winning the Senate race against Mourdock than against Lugar. Even Mourdock supporters accept that fact, and that’s certainly why the Indiana Democratic Party has been trying to soften up Lugar whenever possible.

But acknowledging that Donnelly’s chances of winning improve if Mourdock is his opponent is very different than saying that a Donnelly-Mourdock race would be a tossup. While it could well be competitive, Donnelly would be a clear underdog in the fall.