INDIANAPOLIS | On the morning after the season’s only Indiana Senate primary debate, state Treasurer Richard Mourdock arose early and headed for a Rotary Club in suburban Noblesville. There were fewer than 20 people there, which meant there was plenty of sausage, egg and waffle casserole to go around.
The club’s president announced he was stepping down as the town’s top Rotarian. Then he turned to Mourdock, who is attempting to unseat 80-year-old incumbent Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., and winked. “The time comes for everybody to retire,” he said.
Lugar was not present. He was downtown, on his way to the eighth floor of a shiny high rise, where he would receive perfunctory but valuable endorsements from Indiana businessmen who complained that Washington has become too hyperpartisan.
The last time he ran for re-election, Indiana’s senior senator was so beloved that Democrats did not even field a challenger. And the last time he was challenged from within his own party, he beat the guy by 35 points.
No more. Lugar, with 35 years in Washington under his belt, has become this cycle’s most endangered incumbent.
Some of his wounds have been self-inflicted. Lugar, citing the expense of maintaining two residences, has not owned a home in his home state since 1977 and was briefly declared ineligible to vote. That problem was only rectified after local elections officials allowed him to use a family-owned walnut farm — where he also does not live — as a voting address. Then Lugar had to repay $14,000 in taxpayer money for the cost of the hotels he has stayed in for years when he returned to Indiana.
Lugar, also a former Indianapolis mayor, is not exactly apologetic. His living circumstances were all legal, he told me. And Mike McDaniel, a former state party chairman and Lugar ally, calls the uproar “just silly.”
“Dick Lugar left the state of Indiana three times in his life,” he told me. “The first was to go to college. The second time was to serve his country in the U.S. Navy. And the third time was to go to Washington, D.C., in the U.S. Senate. To claim somehow that this guy’s not a Hoosier is outrageous. It’s petty politics.”
Mourdock likes to say he doesn’t bring up the residency issue himself. But given the opportunity, he is clearly happy to talk about it. “If I’m a United States senator, I’m not going to be paying hotel bills in this state,” he pointedly tells reporters. And when we talked, he argued that although Lugar may have met legal residency requirements, it was still clear he does not “inhabit” Indiana (which is also true, since Lugar and his wife still live in the home they own in suburban Washington, D.C.).
“It’s a huge issue,” Mourdoch said. “And it’s not just a huge issue in where he’s allowed to vote and where he isn’t. It was huge in that it was a court fight over him arguing you can’t make me live in that state.”
It’s been a remarkable turnaround for an accomplished and well-liked senator with an extensive record of accomplishment on foreign policy, nuclear nonproliferation and energy issues. And no one appears more baffled by this turn of events than Lugar himself.
“National groups have found Indiana as the only playground,” he told reporters after facing off against his Republican challenger during the primary debate this week. “It’s where everybody has been romping around.”
But Lugar’s armor has definitely been pierced. Some Republicans grumbled to me that they never see Lugar in the state. Others dismiss his foreign policy accomplishments. His opponents pepper the state with black-and-white signs that read “Retire Lugar.”
Or, as Republican challenger Mourdock says repeatedly: “It’s time.”
The most recent Howey-DePauw University statewide poll shows Lugar narrowly ahead, but with only 42 percent of the vote to Mourdock’s 35 percent. But incumbents, like Lugar, who enjoy almost universal name recognition typically poll north of 50 percent. And since 57 percent of Republican voters said that they had never heard of nor had an opinion of Mourdock, this is clearly Lugar’s problem.
Lugar is fully aware that he’s taking hits from all sides.
Democrats who like Lugar’s brand of bipartisanship nevertheless see an opportunity to snatch a previously safe Republican seat. (Polls show the Democrat waiting in the wings. Rep. Joe Donnelly, has a much better chance of defeating Mourdock than Lugar.)
But Tea Party Republicans, who have seen their popularity fade in recent national polls, could use the boost a Mourdock victory would provide.
Lugar refuses to be counted out. When we talked, he seemed almost cheerful about his endangered status. Shedding his moderate mantle, he is happy to cite his alliance with Ronald Reagan and to declare the Affordable Care Act unconstitutional. Talk about Iran, North Korea, Pakistan and Russia can wait until after the election.
“There is an implication that we have served long enough,” he told me. “That my age is a factor, that would prohibit vigorous service in the future…that it’s all well and good to salute an elderly gentleman who has done a good job for the state and country but it’s time to try something new.”
I had to prod him and ask “But you don’t agree with that, do you?
“No of course not,” he said, laughing and slapping his knee. “I believe some of the best times are still ahead.”
He has just under a month to make that argument stick.
Watch Gwen’s story on Sen. Lugar on the PBS NewsHour below:
Gwen’s Take is cross-posted with the website of Washington Week, which airs Friday night on many PBS stations. Check your local listings.