The last stand of Richard Lugar

Will Rahn | Senior Editor

The political career of Indiana’s Richard Lugar, the longest serving Republican in the Senate, is expected to end in defeat on Tuesday.

A lifelong centrist in a party that had become increasingly conservative in recent years, Lugar is down ten points in a recent poll to his tea party-backed challenger, State Treasurer Richard Mourdock. The race has attracted much attention and funding from outside groups, including FreedomWorks and the powerful Club for Growth, both of which are working to unseat Lugar.

Lugar has drawn fire from conservatives over his support for gun control (he regularly receives an “F” grade from the NRA), his closeness to President Obama, his votes to confirm liberal judges and willingness to support numerous pieces of Democratic legislation, including TARP and the DREAM Act.

Meanwhile, Lugar’s once sterling reputation in Indiana, a state that has habitually returned him to the Senate with upwards of 65 percent of the vote, was significantly diminished after The Daily Caller revealed in January that he has not had a residence there since 1977. Lugar later briefly lost his voting rights in the state and was forced to re-register at a farm his family owns.

It all reinforced the idea that Lugar, in many ways the consummate Senate insider, had lost touch with his conservative constituents. Elected in 1976 after a long tenure as the mayor of Indianapolis, he went on to a string of easy wins in a state dominated by the GOP.

Lugar’s allies worried this year could be different. Spooked by the successful tea party insurgencies of 2010 against Senators like Bob Bennett and Lisa Murkowski, a group of Republican operatives met in early 2011 to warn Lugar about the dangers of a real primary challenge, The Washington Post reported. Their advice went unheeded.

After a slow start, Mourdock’s campaign began gaining steam among grassroots Republicans and support from deep-pocketed groups like the Club. The Lugar campaign responded with a string of negative ads, which further tarnished the incumbent’s brand as a good guy who stayed above the muck of politics.

A sense developed that the senator’s political skills had atrophied after decades of seeming invulnerability. Margaret Ferguson, a political science professor at Indiana University, recently summed up the conventional wisdom when she told CBS that Lugar “just hasn’t run a good campaign.”

Instead of following the tried-and-true examples of incumbents like Arizona Sen. John McCain, who exploited his financial advantage early to beat off a challenge by former Rep. J.D. Hayworth in 2010, Lugar kept a great deal of his money in the bank and only began running ads when the momentum had already shifted in Mourdock’s favor.

Ultimately, Lugar proved himself unable or unwilling to adapt to the changes within his party and the necessities of running a modern campaign. And should he somehow pull off a victory on Tuesday, it will be an exceedingly narrow one.

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