FORT WAYNE, Ind. — The tea party upstart who is trying to dislodge one of the U.S. Senate’s most respected Republicans is about to cry.
Minutes into his stump speech at the annual Lincoln Day Dinner here, as hundreds of Republicans poke at chicken and mini-potatoes, Richard Mourdock chokes up, his voice cracking over the sound system, all the way to the bar at the back of the room.
“Honestly, as I look at our nation’s capital, I feel more frustrated with Republicans than Democrats,” says Mourdock, the Indiana state treasurer. But “bipartisanship has taken us to the brink of bankruptcy. It is not bipartisanship we need; it is principle.”
The audience bursts into applause.
This is the kind of conservative zeal that some voters say has been missing from longtime Sen.Richard G. Lugar, the 80-year-old elder statesman who is now in the fight of his political life.
The six-term Republican senator has been the pride of the Hoosier State, but the close race for Tuesday’s primary shows the dangers of a career built on political pragmatism at a time of conservative ascendancy. Some polls show Mourdock leading the senator.
In the ongoing family feud between the GOP establishment and its tea party wing, the Indiana Senate primary is among the marquee contests of the year — along with Senate races in Utah and Nebraska. The outcome here could decide control of the Senate this fall.
The Republican establishment has spared no expense to keep Lugar in office; the conservative movement has done the same for Mourdock. The U.S. Chamber of Commercebacks Lugar. Sarah Palin endorsed Mourdock. Money has poured in from around the country.
“It is a battle for the position of the Republican Party,” said Andrew Downs, director of the Mike Downs Center for Indiana Politics at theIndiana University-Purdue University Fort Waynecampus.
This is Lugar’s first serious election contest in years — he hasn’t had a primary challenge since he became a senator in 1976. As he toured the state last week in a whirlwind push before election day, Lugar delivered little of the conservative furor that part of his party seems to demand.
Lugar’s stump speeches often sounded more like scratchy recordings of a bygone political era: thoughtful, reasoned arguments that spilled forward in long, complete sentences. Not a sound bite in range.
As he told voters about his work in Washington, he described an arc of mid-20th century political history: being drawn to politics while listening to presidential candidate Wendell Willkie on the radio; supporting Taft over Eisenhower before he was even eligible to vote; negotiating landmark post-Cold War arms reduction legislation that bears his name. These talks can be both riveting and a communications challenge.
When asked why his long career in politics has come to this fight, Lugar launches into the political mechanics of the situation: With few Republican senators up for reelection this year, national conservative groups in search of what he calls a “playground” landed in Indiana.
“There are differing views as to the future of the Republican Party, and there is a very substantial group of people who have different views from my own,” Lugar said between campaign stops. “I presumably should never have befriended Barack Obama, either as a senator or president or what have you. I think that’s an unreasonable suggestion.”
Republican voters in Indiana appear torn between their longtime support for Lugar and anger over his record. Some felt betrayed by the senator when his image was used in a 2008 television ad for Obama, who became the first Democratic presidential candidate to win the state sinceLyndon B. Johnson. Others were infuriated when Lugar voted to lift the debt ceiling last summer, and earlier when he supported the bank stabilization plan.
Keith Hanson, who has run a sign-printing business for nearly 50 years in Fort Wayne, remained undecided after hearing both men speak at the Lincoln dinner. On the one hand, he thinks Lugar has become too “left-ish.” On the other, he says, “we lose our seniority” if Indiana elects a newcomer to the Senate.
“It’s a very tough call,” he said.
Mourdock, 60, became a darling of the tea party movement in Indiana — and nationally — after he launched a legal challenge to the terms of the Obama administration’s bailout of Chrysler during his first term as state treasurer. He argued against putting the automotive unions ahead of state pensioners in line for payouts.
At the same time, tea party activists were looking for a conservative candidate to take on Lugar. Having endeared himself to county Republican leaders after making the rounds at dozens of Lincoln Day dinners, Mourdock emerged as the pick.
Palin gave her nod of approval. FreedomWorks, the Dick Armey-run tea party powerhouse in Washington, is shoveling campaign know-how to the state. The Tea Party Express is on board. And in a single day last week, Mourdock won endorsements from Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform and conservative Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.).
“Now everyone’s jumping on the bandwagon,” said Greg Fettig, one of the tea party organizers who co-founded Hoosiers for a Conservative Senate. “We have the senator in a predicament.”
Yet as happened in pivotal Senate elections across the country in 2010, the conservatives could end up winning the battle but losing the war. If Mourdock emerges as the party’s nominee, the GOP’s chances of keeping the seat in November go down. Republicans are counting on holding Indiana if they hope to gain majority control of the Senate.
Influential Republicans, including the state’s popular Gov. Mitch Daniels and fellow Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) have lent Lugar their support.
Later, Mourdock explained that he chokes up sometimes because he is passionate about the issues. At his campaign headquarters in a freeway-adjacent strip mall in Indianapolis, he angled for the next fight. “Bring it,” he said.
Showing no signs of slowing down, Lugar said at a Rotary Club lunch in Elkhart that he welcomed having to make his case anew — as he does each week to colleagues with differing views in the Senate.
“We usually come out reasonably well,” he said, “if you’re a patient soul, have good arguments and don’t become too heated in the process.”