Six-term Indiana Sen. Dick Lugar ended 2010 with more than $2.3 million in the bank. Unfortunately for Lugar, his war chest is about the only reason to think that he might have a chance of winning a seventh term next year.
The 78-year-old (he turns 79 on Monday) Republican has put together a remarkable and admirable career of public service, starting in 1964, when he was elected to the Indianapolis School Board. He went on to serve as mayor of Indianapolis before winning federal office.
Lugar ran unsuccessfully for the Senate against Birch Bayh in 1974, the horrendous Watergate election year for Republicans, and he won his current Senate seat in 1976, also a tough year for most GOP candidates. He hasn’t had a tough re-election since 1982, when he was held to 54 percent in another bad year for Republicans.
An abortive run for president in 1995 only strengthened Lugar’s reputation as a thoughtful legislator and expert on both foreign policy and agriculture who lacked anything close to charisma and pizzazz.
The 1998 edition of Congressional Quarterly’s Politics in America called his speeches as a presidential candidate both “meaty and serious” and “plodding and colorless.”
But Lugar’s style isn’t a huge liability in Indiana, which elects low-key people such as former Sen. Evan Bayh (D), Sen. Dan Coats (R) and Gov. Mitch Daniels (R), not colorful characters such as Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Al Franken (D-Minn.) and former Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura (I).
An American Viewpoint poll conducted for the Senator in October showed him with high favorable and low unfavorable ratings, and in 2006 Indiana Democrats didn’t even nominate someone to run against him.
Unfortunately for Lugar, things have changed in Indiana as they have elsewhere. The fact that he lives in Virginia surely will become an issue in his bid for re-election, while the fact that he was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2000 or was a Rhodes scholar probably means little now.
In fact, Lugar’s emphasis on crafting legislation to attract broad support, his efforts to solve problems in ways that go beyond knee-jerk left-right approaches and his disinclination toward sharp, polarizing rhetoric leave him increasingly vulnerable in this day and age.
Moreover, instead of ingratiating himself with conservatives and the tea party, Lugar has been more than willing to poke them in the eye, as he did when he supported Senate approval of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty and the DREAM Act, opposed the ban on earmarks, and expressed support for the assault weapons ban.
Last cycle, when I interviewed then-candidate Coats, a mainstream conservative never known as an ideologue or one of the Senate’s more intense partisans, I was surprised how readily and heartily he embraced the tea party movement.
Lugar, in contrast, has been dismissive of the tea party, refusing to back off of his longtime agenda or pander to conservatives with his votes or his rhetoric.