Political Hay

Lugar’s Last Stand

The longtime senator faces a strong Tea Party challenge.

By 5.7.12

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"Every person in Indiana who wants me to continue, every person wherever they might be at this point, I encourage them to come out," the six-term senator exhorted. "Come out immediately, as fast as you can."

So the Indianapolis Star quotes Richard Lugar, first elected to the Senate in 1976, as saying the weekend before his state's Republican primary. Are those the words of a confident candidate? The Star reports:

As a bell rang each time a volunteer won a commitment from a voter, Lugar pleaded with groups that he has helped over the years to now help him salvage his political career....

He appealed to veterans, Jewish voters who cared about his work to help Russian Jews, women who might have benefited from his program to build political networks and minority students who were helped by his scholarship program.

Most of all Lugar is hoping for an inflow of Democratic and independent voters to rescue him from the Republican base. "I'm not asking anybody to cross over," Lugar said. "I'm just saying positively, 'Register your vote, because if you do not, I may not be able to continue serving you.' At this point, help."

How the mighty have fallen. Six years ago, Lugar was returned to the Senate with 80 percent of the vote. The Democrats didn't even bother to run a candidate against him. Now the Democrats are looking past him entirely.

In a Jefferson-Jackson dinner speech to 1,200 party activists Friday night, Rep. Joe Donnelly, the presumptive Democratic nominee for Senate, didn't even mention Lugar's name. He trained all his fire on the longtime senator's primary challenger, state Treasurer Richard Mourdock.

“Richard Mourdock has said he is opposed to bipartisanship. I am the fifth of five kids. As the fifth of five kids, if you are not bipartisan, you do not eat at night,” ​Politicoquoted Donnelly as saying. This country works best when we work together as a family."

Peggy Noonan also stressed family ties when making the case for sending Lugar back to the Senate: "What Washington needs is sober and responsible adults." Noonan didn't disclose who the children were in this relationship.

But it is the sober and responsible adults who have accumulated a national debt larger than the country's economy. There are two ways to demonstrate one's sobriety and responsibility in Washington: to be as supportive of druken sailor-style fiscal irresponsibility as possible or to be as timid as possible in opposition to it.

Noonan's brief misses a larger point: The very reason Lugar is in trouble is that many Hoosiers see him as a creature of Washington, not Indiana -- to the point where his residency has actually been challenged. Perhaps the handwriting was on the wall when Dan Coats, a former senator turned lobbyist, was barely returned to the Senate when two Tea Party candidates split the conservative vote in the Republican primary.

This time, there is no split. Mourdock has Lugar's right flank to himself. Lugar has recently been aggressive in defending his own conservative credentials and casting doubt on Mourdock's. The Democrats are already keying in on Mourdock's resistance to the unfunded Obama stimulus package.

Lugar has specifically hit Mourdock on the flag-burning amendment and a comment in which the state treasurer seemed to open to consolidating military service branches. A late April Lugar statement asks: "Which military branch do you think is no longer necessary in the 21st century -- the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps or Coast Guard?"

Mourdock's conservatism has nevertheless been defended by FreedomWorks, Club for Growth, and Americans for Tax Reform. He also enjoys the support of Sarah Palin, Michele Bachmann, and Michelle Malkin.

Perhaps Lugar can still overcome what certainly seems to be a sudden drop in the polls. He is an experienced politician who has won many times before. But the hour is getting late -- and the Tea Party is getting impatient.

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About the Author

W. James Antle III, author of the new book Devouring Freedom: Can Big Government Ever Be Stopped?, is editor of the Daily Caller News Foundation and a senior editor of The American Spectator. You can follow him on Twitter @jimantle.