TERRE HAUTE, Ind. — A handful of horses occupied the barn that was the setting Friday evening for Sen. Dick Lugar’s fundraiser here, but there might as well have been an elephant in the room.
After the Hoosier State’s senior Senator delivered a history lecture to several dozen supporters about the past nine months on Capitol Hill, he mentioned his re-election campaign — briefly.
“We started [in October] to organize in the counties of our state, to raise money and really try to think through with other Senators [the] recent campaigns they have had and how they progressed,” the Republican said. “And it’s been partly an education.”
After easily winning six terms in the Senate, Lugar’s political future is in peril. Last year, tea-party-backed challengers defeated Senators and candidates more conservative than Lugar. This year, national conservative groups have already focused on the Senator with a reputation for working across the aisle.
The good news for Lugar? Those same groups do not see his primary opponent, state Treasurer Richard Mourdock, as their silver-bullet challenger, in no small part because of his feeble fundraising.
Nonetheless, at the podium Friday evening, host Jim Buechler began his introduction of Lugar with the words, “We hope and pray.” Then he paused before continuing: “I’m confident he will be representing Indiana in the Senate for the next six years.”
‘Microtargeting’ a Modern Campaign
Lugar explained to the crowd gathered in the sweltering barn that his campaign is using “microtargeting” for the first time, describing it as process used to “define who the electorate is.” It’s part of just five minutes he spent talking about his re-election during the 40-minute speech.
Campaign professionals have used microtargeting for at least a decade. But the Senator’s unfamiliarity with the topic illustrates just how long it’s been since Lugar has had to run a tough campaign: 1982.
Lugar is the state’s longest-serving Senator — a fact underscored on the jacket of the seven-chapter DVDs featuring Lugar’s “impact on important moments in the history of Indiana, the United States and the world” that were left for guests on the plastic tablecloths.
Lugar barely mentioned the primary before speaking more extensively about the general election. He referenced a 25-point lead over underdog Democratic candidate Rep. Joe Donnelly, according to his campaign’s internal polls. He never mentioned Mourdock by name.
In an interview with Roll Call a few days later, the affable Lugar only once acknowledged that his race will be a “struggle.” He described supporters approaching him at airports, including Transportation Security Administration agents, offering their words of encouragement more often than he has seen in years.
“There’s a degree of interest that I’ve not seen before, and I think it’s probably impelled by their sense that this is a real struggle and they want to make certain that I know they’re on my side,” Lugar said.
Time for a Change
There’s no question Mourdock is out-hustling Lugar on the campaign trail.
Mourdock marched in his second of three parades on July Fourth in Lebanon, a city northwest of Indianapolis. As he crisscrossed the suburban streets, half a dozen people expressed their desire to see Lugar defeated. He worked the crowd, tossing out his campaign gimmick — pencils — to hundreds of parade-watchers.
“It’s surprising, it really is. You’ll hear it before we get done here. Someone will say something pro-Mourdock or just saying, ‘It’s time for a change,’” Mourdock said. “Have a pencil, ma’am.”
Lugar rarely marches in parades, staffers say. On the July Fourth holiday, his office publicized two events: a concert and an ice cream social at the Benjamin Harrison Presidential Site in Indianapolis, the home of the country’s only Hoosier president, where about 100 people gathered.
“Mourdock has a lot of brawn, but no brain,” said one Mourdock supporter, who declined to speak on the record. “And you’ve got Lugar, and this is not his first time on this rodeo, and he’s smart enough to know it’s not all about hard work.”
There’s a groundswell of hatred among hard-core Republicans for Lugar. What remains to be seen, however, is if Mourdock is well-equipped enough to take him out.
Mourdock’s fundraising is anemic. He raised only $300,000 during the past three months — one-third of what Lugar brought in during the same time period.
But Mourdock won’t need much money to convince grass-roots conservatives such as Tom and Judy Schlegelmilch of Idaville, who are supporting his campaign.
“The big reason is we would like to see Lugar out of there,” Tom Schlegelmilch said. “He went off the rails in our opinion, supporting things that’s definitely not our way of thinking. It’s time to support somebody new.”
The Schlegelmilches drove a tractor in the parade as part of Mourdock’s volunteer caravan. Judy Schlegelmilch mentioned the ratification of a new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty as just one of the policy areas that have fed her desire to see Lugar go.
“He’s just gone too liberal,” she said. “It’s more than just the last year.”
DREAM and Debt Limit Test
It’s hard to find a Hoosier who doesn’t respect Lugar’s political tenure, from his time as the “Boy Scout Mayor” of Indianapolis to his negotiation of nuclear arms treaties for the entire country.
These days, it’s more difficult to find a Republican who will endorse him. Every Republican in the state’s Congressional delegation, including Sen. Dan Coats, opted to stay neutral in Lugar’s primary. Gov. Mitch Daniels, the Senator’s former top aide, is the only prominent elected Indiana Republican to publicly lend his support.
Lugar chalked up his colleagues’ caution to their own re-election races, even though their silence lends credence to his tough road ahead.
“They want to be very careful,” Lugar told Roll Call. “They see no particular reason to be investing in my race and taking any chances whatsoever. It’s a very prudent course for many of my colleagues. I fully understand their trepidation and anxieties as they approach their candidacies.”
Lugar’s recent actions have indicated he might also be feeling the heat.
The ranking member on the Foreign Relations Committee is the most vocal in the chamber when it comes to chastising the White House for the military intervention in Libya.
Lugar also signed on to co-sponsor the Fair Tax bill last month. He’s backed the proposal since he briefly ran for president in 1996, but the initiative is also popular with conservative activists.
“I’m not pandering to anybody,” Lugar said. “I’m simply taking stances that I believe are best for our country, best for Hoosiers, and I’ll continue to make my stands on that basis.”
In his long-winded update on Washington to his supporters Friday evening, Lugar glazed over his work in the lame-duck session, including spearheading the ratification of START and co-sponsoring the DREAM Act. Senate Democratic leaders backed both initiatives, which are unpopular among conservative Republicans.
This spring, Lugar declined to again co-sponsor the DREAM Act. He said this change came as a reaction to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) using the immigration reform legislation in a speech to “satisfy persons who were dissatisfied with Reid and the president and Democrats for not passing immigration reform or the DREAM Act the year before.”
But Lugar’s greatest legislative test, in the view of primary voters, might be yet to come.
Hoosier Republicans will monitor Lugar’s vote when Congress takes up raising the debt ceiling later this month.
He stressed how important it is to raise the debt ceiling, but he would not say unequivocally that he would vote for it.
He said he’s working with Republicans to ensure spending cuts are greater than the amount the debt ceiling is raised.
“It will be important to raise the debt ceiling because failure to do so would be catastrophic to the ability of this country to borrow money, to have an active bond market,” Lugar said in the interview. “I believe we would have repercussions in the stock market that would be very severe.”
Waiting on Mitch?
National conservative groups have identified Lugar, along with fellow GOP Sen. Orrin Hatch (Utah), as their top targets for defeat next year. But, so far, conservatives in Washington, D.C., are hesitant to rally behind Mourdock.
“I think they’re just kind of waiting. I think they recognize how formidable a 35-year incumbent is in this state,” Mourdock said in an interview last week following a speech to the Corydon Tea Party in Southern Indiana. “I have one group in D.C. that is absolutely convinced — and this is the craziest thing I’ve run across — they’re absolutely convinced Mitch Daniels is going to get in. They don’t know Mitch Daniels, and Mitch Daniels would be the most miserable person in the United States Senate ever.”
Mourdock has met with many national conservative organizations that play in primaries, including the Tea Party Express, FreedomWorks, Club for Growth and Citizens United. None of these groups has backed Mourdock yet or shown as much interest in the Indiana Senate race as they have in Hatch’s contest until recently.
In early June, Club for Growth President Chris Chocola issued a press release declaring, “Run, Jason, Run,” intended to encourage Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) to challenge Hatch next year. The club never issued such a press release for Mourdock.
But the well-funded conservative group did release a harsh TV ad targeting Lugar and Hatch in their respective home states this week. After all, Chocola is a former GOP Congressman from north-central Indiana.
But the group might not be rushing to back Mourdock after he faltered in his first meeting with members in late February, according to two Republicans with knowledge of the event. As club members peppered him with questions, Mourdock was caught off-guard, became defensive and raised his voice.
“Mourdock was either unprepared for the issues that the club cared about most or unwilling to see the world as they see it,” one of the Republican sources said. “They wanted so badly to support Mourdock, but he gave them every reason not to.”
In an effort to make amends with the club, Mourdock requested a second meeting in early May that sources said was more productive.
“We’re just going to wait, and they’re going to come to us,” Mourdock said last week. “That’s fine. And if they don’t, I still think we’re going to win because we’ve got the ground game that they don’t appreciate.”
In the meantime, the club is keeping its ad targeting Lugar on the air indefinitely — a sign that conservatives will not let up on the Senator until they see him defeated.