FORT WAYNE – Richard Lugar has been a U.S. senator going on 36 years.
In that time, be became a Capitol Hill leader on foreign policy, agriculture and energy. He was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for his work to rid the former Soviet Union of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons.
His 1996 campaign for the Republican presidential nomination never built steam, yet his reputation didnt suffer. In each of his four general elections since 1988, he has received at least 67 percent of the vote. Democrats didnt bother running a candidate against him in 2006. A poll conducted in 2008 by IPFW found Lugar was the most respected politician among Hoosiers.
And then the tea party movement started.
The swift emergence of this arguably grass-roots but assuredly far-right faction of the Republican Party threatened establishment GOP officeholders and candidates around the nation, and it defeated a few of them in the 2010 primary elections.
Bolstered by tea party groups, a wave of ultraconservative nominees led Republicans to reclaim control of the House after four years of Democratic rule.
Since then, the tea party has been gunning for the two longest-serving Republican senators – Lugar and Utahs Orrin Hatch, each elected in 1976 – claiming they are too moderate.
Hatch recently turned back a tea party challenge at a Republican state convention, and he seems likely to win the primary and general elections.
On May 8, its Lugars turn. For the first time since taking office, he has a challenger in the Republican primary election.
There are real differences between Mr. Lugar and I, Richard Mourdock said. He is no longer a conservative.
Mourdock, the second-term state treasurer from suburban Evansville, has won endorsements from many right-wing organizations, including Club for Growth, FreedomWorks, the National Rifle Association, Indiana Right to Life, Tea Party Express, Citizens United and the Family Research Council. Sarah Palin, the Republican vice presidential candidate in 2008, also has endorsed Mourdock.
Lugar can produce his own list of endorsements and sterling ratings from conservative groups and officials, although of a more mainstream stripe: the U.S. and state Chambers of Commerce, the Indiana Manufacturers Association, the National Federation of Independent Business, the National Defense PAC, Gov. Mitch Daniels, and former U.S. Secretaries of State Condoleezza Rice and George Shultz. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., the GOP candidate for president in 2008, is backing Lugar.
I have made the point throughout the campaign that I have a conservative record. I am a conservative, Lugar said.
He recited positions he has taken as far back as when he was mayor of Indianapolis in the 1960s and 70s: consolidating city and Marion County governments into Unigov and cutting taxes while he was at it; co-sponsoring 17 bills for a balanced budget amendment to the U.S. Constitution; pushing for an end to federal farm subsidies; and pressing for the construction of the Keystone XL oil pipeline.
Mourdock has heard Lugar pitch his conservative credentials and questions them as they pertain to international affairs, fiscal matters and immigration policy.
Theres all these things he wants to claim hes a conservative, but conservatives arent buying it, Mourdock said. My job is just to remind the conservative base that Dick Lugar is not the conservative he wants you to believe he is.
‘You gotta do it’
Mourdock, 60, is a native of Wauseon, Ohio. He graduated from Defiance College in Ohio and earned a masters degree in geology from Ball State University.
He managed businesses in the energy, environmental and construction industries, according to his campaign website, and he served two terms as a Vanderburgh County commissioner.
He is a licensed pilot and a marathon runner. He is married to wife Marilyn.
Mourdock ran for Congress in 1988, 1990 and 1992, twice capturing the GOP nomination but losing each time to Democratic incumbent Frank McCloskey in the 8th District. He sought the GOP nomination for Indiana secretary of state in 2002. He was elected state treasurer in 2006 and re-elected in 2010.
As state treasurer, he tried to halt the 2009 sale of bankrupt Chrysler to Italian automaker Fiat, arguing that Indiana pension and infrastructure funds that held Chrysler bonds would lose a combined $6 million under terms of the deal.
The U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the case, and the sale went through.
Today, Chrysler employs about 4,500 at its three transmission plants in Kokomo.
Mourdock said that 2 1/2 years ago, three members of the Indiana Republican State Central Committee, acting independently of one another, asked him to consider running against Lugar.
My response, he said, was always very kind, very nice, very thoughtful: What the heck did I ever do to you?
After he was re-elected treasurer by a wide margin, many more people urged him to run.
Senators serve six-year terms and are paid $174,000 a year.
Then it just became a crescendo, he recalled. All over the state: You gotta do it. Donors were calling: You gotta do it. Party leaders, party (county) chairmen.
Honestly, one of the real keys that really sparked my interest to make me start to look at it was when Dick Lugar put out a news release about 10 days after the election of 2010 declaring himself the most popular politician in Indiana, Mourdock said.
Mourdock was referring to a poll Lugar had commissioned. Sen. Evan Bayh, D-Ind., who did not seek re-election in 2010, finished second to Lugar in favorable ratings, and Daniels was third.
And honestly, that made me angry, Mourdock said. Because at the time, we all thought the governor was getting ready to run for president – and Evan Bayh didnt even have the guts to run for re-election? And (Lugar is) kind of touting Evan Bayh over Mitch.
And that really upset me, and believe me, it upset a lot of people. And I said, OK, well, maybe I should check this out.
It wasnt until I started really looking (at Lugars votes) to see where I came to the realization: He logged off Indiana a long time ago. He logged off the way the Indiana Republican Party thinks, our base, our grass roots. And hes out of touch.
Mourdock called GOP chairmen in Indianas 92 counties and asked for their public endorsements in an attempt to scare off potential rivals.
The fact that three-quarters were willing to put their names on it, it was like OK, its time to go, its time to do this, Mourdock said.
It was a hard decision in the sense of, oh my God, this is Dick Lugar were talking about.
Lugar turned 80 this month. He grew up in Indianapolis, was an Eagle Scout, graduated first in his class at Denison University in Granville, Ohio, and was a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University in England, where he studied political science, philosophy and economics. As a Navy intelligence officer in the 1950s, he briefed President Dwight D. Eisenhower.
Lugar returned to Indianapolis to work for his familys farm and food equipment manufacturing business, then began his political career with a seat on the school board. He lost in his first bid for the Senate in 1974 against Democratic incumbent Birch Bayh but unseated Democratic Sen. Vance Hartke in 1976.
He and his wife, Charlene, have four grown children. He is an avid runner.
In Washington, Lugar forged a reputation as a statesman, working across party lines and advocating for diplomacy around the world. He and Sen. Sam Nunn, D-Ga., won approval for 1991 legislation in which the U.S. would help former Soviet nations eliminate their nuclear warheads.
Lugars more recent support for nuclear arms reduction, the earmarks process, immigrants children and federal loans to banks and automakers rankled the ascending tea party, as did his votes to confirm President Obamas two nominees for the Supreme Court.
Acknowledging he has not owned a house in Indiana since his first year in the Senate poured fuel on the tea partys ire.
Why didnt Lugar retire instead of enduring the fundraising, negative advertising and media scrutiny promised by a contested primary election?
I have a great deal to accomplish, he replied.
He said he has considerable interest with regard to foreign leaders and the best foreign and security policy for our country based on decades of experience and working with people throughout the world.
I am doing things now that I believe help create jobs, he added. Ive fought, for instance, for the Keystone XL pipeline, and I think this is one were on the threshold of finally winning. But it all started with my amendment in the Senate.
So Im advocating, I suppose, in my candidacy that I am not only the most experienced and knowledgeable person with regard to national security as well as conservative fiscal prudence, but we are on the job with projects that are ongoing, contacts that can make a difference.
He highlighted another example of his experience when Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood asked him to recommend highway construction projects for Indiana.
In the past, this would have been called earmarks, Lugar said. In a very legitimate way, I would have presented projects to the relevant committee, I would have put them on my website, we would have gotten votes in the Congress. I believe that is the way to handle this as opposed to the secretary or other bureaucrats in the agency making all the choices.
Rep. Joe Donnelly, D-2nd, is unopposed in his partys primary election for Lugars Senate seat. Lugars campaign has warned that if Mourdock wins the GOP primary, then Donnelly – a conservative Blue Dog Democrat from Granger – will capture the general election, likely ensuring that Democrats retain their Senate majority.
Thats what state Democratic Party leaders envision. And so they have been unrelenting in their attacks on Lugar, especially in regard to his decision to live in McLean, Va.
I feel called, compelled to do this, Mourdock said about his challenge to Lugar. And if we win, we are ready to go into the playoffs. If we dont win, I know weve done the right thing: Weve sent the message that Dick Lugar better be more conservative.
Dont get me wrong, I do believe we are going to win.
He cited improved fundraising, increased media coverage and internal polling, including a survey he said gives him the lead in his race with Lugar.
People want to see a more conservative U.S. Senate, he said.
But Lugar doesnt sound like hes ready to concede anything, including his job.
I find the opportunity tremendously challenging and rewarding, and that has been true of every year of my service, and I believe it will continue to be, he said about the prospect of 6 more years – and 42 total – in the Senate.
Is it still fun?
Yes, it is, Lugar responded, because every day there are new adventures, new people coming into my life that I could not have expected, calls, letters, interviews, whatever. This I find both exciting and fascinating. But also, I learn and continue to grow in my own understanding.
He did not bring up Mourdocks name during the interview. Was that by design?
My design is to talk about the things that I believe that I can achieve to help Hoosiers, who I hope will re-elect me, Lugar said.
I dont mean any discourtesy by ignoring my opponent, but Im not certain he really is addressing the same issues, and thats his choice.