Once Nixon's Favorite Mayor, Dick Lugar Is Now Obama's 'Favorite Republican' : It's All Politics Richard Lugar, Indiana's longest serving senator, has been considered a reliable conservative during much of his 34 years in office. But not everyone agrees, and he faces a potentially serious Tea Party challenge in next year's primary.
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Once Nixon's Favorite Mayor, Dick Lugar Is Now Obama's 'Favorite Republican'

Once Nixon's Favorite Mayor, Dick Lugar Is Now Obama's 'Favorite Republican'

Lugar, in the Senate 34 years, faces a strong Tea Party challenge in next year's GOP primary. Alex Brandon/AP hide caption

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Alex Brandon/AP

Lugar, in the Senate 34 years, faces a strong Tea Party challenge in next year's GOP primary.

Alex Brandon/AP

Once, when you looked in the dictionary to find "most popular Republican in Indiana," a photo of Richard Lugar would invariably pop up.

And why not? He has won six Senate elections, more than any other Hoosier in history. In fact, in 2006, the last time he was on the ballot, Democrats didn't even put up a candidate against him. True, he has never been Mr. Warmth, and never wowed crowds with his speaking style. But he is hard working, bright, soft spoken, respectful and, though this is now in dispute, conservative.

It wasn't always in dispute.

Yes, he does have a history of bipartisanship, and yes, he has voted for environmental protection and gun control legislation, issues anathema to the right. But for the most part, he was a reliable member of the Senate's conservative wing; CQ's Politics in America 1996 noted that only three Senate Republicans supported President George H.W. Bush more than he, and that his average score from the liberal Americans for Democratic Action was only a "10" (out of a hundred) over his career.

But that view may no longer be widely shared in Indiana. Amy Kremer of the Tea Party Express — the same group that was behind the primary upsets of Joe Miller in Alaska and Christine O'Donnell in Delaware in 2010 — earlier this month called Lugar the "epitome of what is wrong in Washington, D.C.":

Enough is enough - Dick Lugar voted for the bailouts. He then voted against the bill that would have refunded the unused TARP bailout funds back to taxpayers. He voted for the big government SCHIP program. He criticized those who were opposed to earmarks. He supports amnesty. He was given the grade of "F" by Gun Owners of America.

As we here at the Tea Party Express prepare to unveil our Target List for the 2012 elections, it is clear that someone like this needs to go.

And then, on Tuesday, state Treasurer Richard Mourdock announced he would challenge Lugar in the May 2012 primary, saying he is supported by three-quarters of the state's GOP county chairs. On his Web site, Mourdock listed a slew of issues where he and the senator differ: on President Obama (Lugar "has been cited" as Obama's "favorite Republican"), on Supreme Court nominees (he voted for Obama's "liberal activist" Supreme Court nominees Sotomayor and Kagen ), on illegal immigration (Lugar "has repeatedly voted for amnesty"), on abortion (Lugar voted for federally funded research on human embryos), on gun rights, "Obama Care," the auto industry bailout, TARP, earmarks, you name it.

Lugar was derided as Nixon's "favorite mayor" during his unsuccessful 1974 Senate bid against Democratic incumbent Birch Bayh. hide caption

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(As for being "President Obama's favorite Republican" — you cannot help but love the irony of that. When he first ran for the Senate, against incumbent Birch Bayh in the Watergate year of 1974, his Democratic opponents taunted him for being President Nixon's "favorite mayor," which Nixon did say during Lugar's tenure as Indianapolis' chief executive.)

Mourdock is not the only Hoosier Republican with eyes on the Senate seat. But the Tea Party folks are cognizant of what happened in 2010, when two conservatives — Marlin Stutzman and John Hostettler — took on establishment favorite Dan Coats, a former senator who is probably considered even more conservative than Lugar, in the primary. Coats won with just 40 percent of the vote, with Stutzman and Hostettler splitting much of the rest. Conservatives don't want to make that mistake again, and are holding a caucus in June, with the goal of uniting against one conservative challenger.

Many are intrigued about how Lugar is dealing with this challenge. There was a good story in Politico earlier this week that talked about the two different strategies being taken by Lugar and another Senate GOP veteran who may have run afoul of the right, Utah's Orrin Hatch. Hatch, mindful of how the Tea Party took out fellow Utah Sen. Robert Bennett (R) at the 2010 state convention, has done everything he can to "prove his conservative bona fides." Lugar, on the other hand is "defiant," someone who "pokes fingers in the eyes of his critics on the right":

Other than a two-hour meeting with tea party leaders in Indianapolis in December, Lugar has shown little sign of recalibrating his support for TARP, the DREAM Act, President Barack Obama's Supreme Court nominees or anything else that has the conservative grass roots roiling.

That's why when the Tea Party Express recently announced its first Senate targets of 2012, Lugar made the list but Hatch did not.

"Honestly, I'm shocked that Lugar has been so defiant, because November wasn't that long ago," said Tea Party Express Chairman Amy Kremer. "He's digging in his heels and going to fight us. It makes you want to defeat him even more. It also angers activists across the country, so it has the potential of becoming a nationwide race where conservatives everywhere want to defeat him."

While Lugar is sending the message that, after six terms in the Senate, he won't kiss the tea party's ring — or anything else — it's not entirely clear that his approach is working. On Tuesday, Indiana state Treasurer Richard Mourdock formally announced his intention to challenge the senator in a 2012 primary. Mourdock claimed to have already secured the support of 77 percent of the state's GOP county chairmen — a stunning figure, if true, against an incumbent of Lugar's stature.

At the end of their recent column praising Lugar, journalists Steve and Cokie Roberts wrote this: "His critics say Indiana can 'do better' than its senior senator, but they have it exactly wrong. Congress doesn't need fewer Dick Lugars. It needs more of them." But the senator, who turns 79 in April, may feel that having to prove his conservative bona fides is beneath him. Still, he has to realize that this is a completely different Republican Party electorate than the one that sent him to the Senate six times. This is not a challenge that should be immediately dismissed.

Experts weigh in. I asked some Indiana political analysts for their take. Here were some of their responses:

Brian Howey, publisher of the "Howey Politics Indiana" newsletter:

Clearly there is a movement afoot whether it is the Tea Party or rural Republicans skeptical of internationalism and doesn't want to negotiate with President Obama. To them, "compromise" is a dirty word. Lugar's career in public service is all about compromise. Mourdock's candidacy is just one more coming across America in waves where the political center is in the crosshairs.

Lugar has much work to do to attain a seventh term. Mourdock, however, is facing the best political organization in modern Indiana times, and the most prolific Republican vote-getter in history. And this race is still 15 months away. There is much definition left.

One thing worth noting: When Evan Bayh announced he was leaving the U.S. Senate in 2010, he lamented the lack of "bipartisanship." When Mourdock declared his challenge to Lugar, he blamed "bipartisanship" for the current state of affairs.

Former Rep. Mark Souder (R):

My biggest fear is that the Indiana Tea Party thinks it is bigger than it is but Lugar just is so defiant that I think he may be in real trouble. Mourdock has a chance but there's still a long way to go. I have not seen [Mourdock's] list of county chairman but would assume they are mostly the smaller, less populated counties and not the Indianapolis area (58% of the primary vote is Indy TV). But the key thing is this: if Lugar keeps sticking his finger in the eyes of Republicans, Mourdock, who has been everywhere in Indiana, will be in place for the huge upset.

Jim Shella, political reporter for WISH-TV in Indianapolis:

Party leaders admit that Lugar has not done enough to stay in touch with county chairmen and the state Republican Committee in recent years, but he has universal name identification and widespread respect. He has also built networks outside the party with, among other things, an annual seminar for leading high school students, the Lugar Series (political training for Republican Women). Lugar has vulnerabilities but will be tough to beat.

Brian Vargus, PhD Professor, Political Science, Indiana University, Indianapolis:

Murdoch is more noise than substance but his supporters will show up in the primary. Lugar has a substantial war chest — much more than Murdoch. He knows he has to get his base out. Note than Govenor Daniels has endorsed [Lugar]. Bet Lugar to win, especially big in Fall. Murdoch will show about 30% in primary. Look at 2010 and how Coats beat Stutzman ... who has same base as Murdoch.

From the Archives: "Democrats May Be Hard Pressed to Retain Evan Bayh Senate Seat" (Political Junkie, Feb. 16, 2010).

Dick Lugar has been virtually indestructible in Indiana since coming to the Senate in 1977. But he was passed over as Reagan's running mate in 1980, and his bid for the White House went nowhere in 1996. hide caption

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Talk of the Nation: Wednesday's Political Junkie segment focused on the increasingly tense budget situation in the states, with special guest Rick Snyder, the new governor of Michigan. Host Neal Conan and I also talked about Rahm Emanuel's victory in the Chicago mayoral race, Sen. Jeff Bingaman's (D-N.M.) decision to call it quits, Sen. John Thune's (R-S.D.) decision to stay out of the 2012 presidential race, the conservative challenge to Lugar, and the weird behavior of Rep. David Wu (D-Ore.).

And here was the trivia question: Before Chicago and Rahm Emanuel, which top 10 city last elected a former member of Congress as its mayor? (Answer below.)

You can hear the segment here:

Podcast. This week's episode of our "It's All Politics" podcast was produced by Evie Stone and edited by Cathy Shaw, with Ron Elving and I yakking away. You can listen to it here:

While you're hiding in Illinois you can at least listen to the podcast

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In Case You Missed It. Last Tuesday's Junkie column focused on the Chicago mayoral race and the odds that Rahm Emanuel would win without a runoff. It also revealed the answer to last week's very difficult ScuttleButton puzzle. You can read that column here. And in last Thursday's column (Feb. 17), I focused on the suddenly open Arizona Senate race and the desire by many Democrats to run Gabby Giffords for the seat. You can read that column here.

Oscar picks. We all know how well I did with House predictions last fall. But here are my guesses for Sunday's Oscar's, which everyone is no doubt wondering about:

Best picture: The Social Network (even though I liked The King's Speech more)

Best actor: Colin Firth

Best actress: Natalie Portman

Best supporting actor: Christian Bale

Best supporting actress: Melissa Leo

Best director: David Fincher

Best button puzzle: ScuttleButton

Later today: ScuttleButton!

Trivia answer. Former Rep. Steve Bartlett (R-Texas) was elected mayor of Dallas in 1991.

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Nader button — Bush & Gore make me want to Ralph

This Day In Campaign History: Ralph Nader declares his candidacy for president (Feb. 25, 2000). Nader will go on to win just 2.8 million votes nationally — less than 3 percent of the vote. But he will also take 97,488 votes in Florida, a state that George W. Bush defeated Al Gore by just 537 votes. And many Democrats continue to blame Nader for Gore's defeat.

Got a question? Ask Ken Rudin: politicaljunkie@npr.org