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Longtime GOP Sen. Lugar Faces Stiff Tea Party Fight

Sen. Richard Lugar (right) meets with workers at the Oerlikon Fairfield manufacturing plant in Lafayette, Ind., on Feb. 24.
Reuters /Landov
Sen. Richard Lugar (right) meets with workers at the Oerlikon Fairfield manufacturing plant in Lafayette, Ind., on Feb. 24.

Six-term Republican Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana is facing his first primary challenge since winning the job in the 1970s. The race is attracting big money from outside groups and superPACs, and is seen as a test of the strength of the Tea Party movement versus the power of incumbency.

The Chapel in Fort Wayne, Ind., has a high-octane choir and seemingly endless rows of pews. Last Sunday, it proved a friendly stop for Lugar. After services he could barely move a few feet before someone else came up to shake his hand, or take a picture, or remind him of that one time he spoke at their college or Rotary Club.

On the face of it, Lugar, 80, should have every advantage in this primary. He has huge name recognition, is the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and has a massive political war chest. As of Dec. 31, when candidates last reported, he had millions more in the bank than his opponent.

Political Embarrassments

But in recent weeks, Lugar has faced a series of embarrassments. First, a local elections board ruled he was ineligible to vote because he sold his Indianapolis home in 1977 and moved to a Washington, D.C., suburb — though the board later said he could re-register from the address of a family farm.

"So we have done so," Lugar says. "So we're now registered voters, and once again we'll be voting in the election."

Then it came out that Lugar's staff may have inappropriately submitted for reimbursement for hotel stays when he was back in the state.

"I wrote a personal check on Friday for the $14,600 to the United States Treasury to remedy this situation," Lugar says.

He describes these problems as character attacks, coming from outside groups. It's not yet clear how they will affect the race. What is clear is that for the first time in decades, Lugar is facing a very serious challenge, and that challenge is coming from the right.

'It's Time'

"We've got to have government living within its means," says State Treasurer Richard Mourdock, 60. "Mr. Lugar's been part of that go-along, get-along group that keeps making government bigger. I want to make it smaller."

Mourdock knows he's running against an Indiana institution, but he isn't letting that bother him.

"Hasn't been easy from the get-go to get people ready to think that even we should have another senator," he says. "But I'm convinced Republicans are about to say, on May 8th , 'It's time.' "

As he has done virtually every Saturday since October, Mourdock is going door to door, introducing himself to Republican voters. He goes up to Robert Walter, a retired doctor who is doing yard work outside his home in Evansville, Ind. Walter asks who Mourdock is running against. When the answer is "Mr. Lugar," Walter's response is immediate.

"Lugar. He's been there too long, hasn't he?" Walter asks.

Mourdock says he hears that from many voters.

"Even I had to retire," says Dianne Hensley, who greets the candidate on her porch a couple of blocks away. "Lugar's been there long enough, so it's time for fresh blood, new ideas."

Outside Groups

There are reasons for Mourdock's growing confidence, and it's not just because many of the voters he talks to say exactly what he wants to hear. He has the backing of most of the state's Tea Party groups; national conservative groups FreedomWorks and the Club for Growth are bringing big money to defeat Lugar.

"When Dick Lugar moved to Washington 35 years ago, the national debt was less than a trillion dollars. Now it's over $15 trillion. What's Lugar done?" asks one issue ad from the Club for Growth.

"It really is about the direction of our country, the culture of the Senate and our ability to really face up to the challenges that have been created over the last 35 years," says Chris Chocola, president of the Washington-based Club for Growth.

Chocola says GOP politics have changed since Lugar was first elected. His group's emphasis is on smaller government and dealing with the deficit — and that has increasingly become the focus of the Republican Party.

"He's a great American in many ways, but he hasn't recognized the realities of the political environment and the challenges we face as a country because he's simply been there too long and has lost the context of where America needs to go," Chocola says.

Things like seniority on a committee, or occasionally working across party lines, or even bringing federal money back home used to be an asset. Now they're marks of being a Washington insider. Lugar doesn't buy into the criticism of people like Chocola, and he's not convinced voters will, either.

"People really do not like to see big money, globs of big money, being put on television, and television ads which have nothing to do whatsoever with Indiana but have everything to do with the clout of these particular groups," Lugar says.

There are outside superPACs backing Lugar, too, and the senator's campaign is all over the airwaves with its own ads.

Both candidates seem resigned to the fact that this campaign is in the midst of becoming an air war where both will take a beating.

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Tamara Keith has been a White House correspondent for NPR since 2014 and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast, the top political news podcast in America. Keith has chronicled the Trump administration from day one, putting this unorthodox presidency in context for NPR listeners, from early morning tweets to executive orders and investigations. She covered the final two years of the Obama presidency, and during the 2016 presidential campaign she was assigned to cover Hillary Clinton. In 2018, Keith was elected to serve on the board of the White House Correspondents' Association.