Lugar Faces GOP Primary Fight of His Life

One of the two longest-serving Republican U.S. senators faces what is likely to be the stiffest primary challenge of his career—and promises to be one of the most-watched intra-party strikes against any Republican member of Congress in 2012.

In an exclusive interview with HUMAN EVENTS last week, Indiana State Treasurer Richard Mourdock made it clear he would take on the Hoosier State’s longtime Sen. Richard Lugar for renomination in the May primary next year.  At 77 and after six terms in the Senate, this is the first substantive primary challenge Lugar will face since he won nomination to his first term over conservative former Gov. Richard Gov. Edgar Whitcomb back in 1976.

The contest will have national significance not just because of Lugar’s durability and reputation as a political power in Washington, or even because Mourdock is sure to have the backing of Indiana’s powerful Tea Party movement.  Rather, the two-term treasurer’s challenge will also be watched nationwide because of Mourdock’s unusually strong backing among party regulars within the state GOP.

“Nearly three-fourths of the 92 Republican county chairmen in Indiana have given me their endorsement,” Mourdock told us, “and our two Republican National Committee members [James Bopp Jr. and DeDe Banke] are also in our camp.”

As to why Mourdock—three months after he won reelection, leading the statewide Republican ticket by about 110,000 votes—is taking on his state’s longest-serving U.S. senator, the conservative hopeful ticked off votes and actions by Lugar that have infuriated the party’s grassroots activists: being the first Republican senator to endorse Sonia Sotomayor for the Supreme Court, opposing the earmark ban, supporting “The DREAM Act” (which many conservatives charge benefits illegal immigration), and, most recently, his vote to ratify the controversial New START arms control treaty.

“And then there is the feeling that, after so many years as chairman or ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Dick is more concerned with foreign policy than he is with Indiana, where our unemployment is now just about 10%,” said Mourdock.  “In fact, a lot of us expected him to be named secretary of state by now.”

Mourdock is a familiar figure with HUMAN EVENTS readers, going back to his two close-but-losing races for Congress in the 8th District against the late Rep. Frank McCloskey in 1990 and ’92.  The geologist also lost a nomination bid to current Rep. Todd Rokita for Indiana secretary of state in ’02, but rebounded in ’04 to win his present office.  In ’09, Mourdock launched a much-publicized (but eventually unsuccessful) lawsuit to stop the Obama administration’s auto bailout.

As to whether national conservative groups will make the Mourdock campaign a top priority, the challenger told us that he’s had “some very good meetings” with groups in Washington, including the Club for Growth and FreedomWorks. 

As pundits and prognosticators begin to focus on Mourdock vs. Lugar, the obvious question is whether the veteran senator, like Utah’s Bob Bennett last year, has been away from Republican activists so long as to have lost touch.

“You’re asking the wrong guy,” Mourdock said with a laugh, “but there was an article in the Evansville Courier after [Lugar] had a fund-raising event in which it was pointed out that this was the first time he had been in Evansville in four-and-a-half years.  That speaks volumes.”