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Uphill Climb For Veteran Lugar In Tuesday Primary

Republican Sen. Richard Lugar (right) and state Treasurer Richard Mourdock participate in an April 11 debate in Indianapolis.
Darron Cummings
Republican Sen. Richard Lugar (right) and state Treasurer Richard Mourdock participate in an April 11 debate in Indianapolis.

In Indiana, Republican primary voters Tuesday will decide whether to give GOP Sen. Richard Lugar the opportunity to seek a seventh term in November's general election. A recent independent poll shows him in trouble in his own party, with his Tea Party-backed opponent, Richard Mourdock, in the lead.

Volunteers for Mourdock spent Sunday going door to door dropping off campaign fliers at Republican households. Across town at Lugar campaign headquarters in the Broad Ripple neighborhood of Indianapolis, volunteers worked the phones. Just since Friday, they've made more than 100,000 calls.

For the Lugar campaign, the hope is to reverse gains made by Mourdock, a two-term state treasurer, to capture undecided voters — and even Democrats and independents who can vote in the primary.

Andy Fisher, Lugar's campaign spokesman, described the strategy as "converting people who had been Mourdock supporters to Lugar supporters. We're also identifying people who have not voted in primaries before that are coming in."

It's impossible to know whether this strategy is working or will make a difference.

Mourdock has been greatly aided by big spending from outside groups including the conservative Club for Growth, the National Rifle Association and the Tea Party-affiliated group Freedomworks.

Mourdock is campaigning on the message that Lugar is too moderate, that he's out of touch with Hoosiers and that he has simply been in Washington too long. This was brought into sharp relief in March when Lugar temporarily had his voter registration revoked because he hasn't actually lived in Indiana since the 1970s. He ultimately cleared it up and re-registered from his family's farm.

But for some voters, it seems the damage was done.

"Lugar has been in too long — and how dare he do what he's been doing?" said Di Maher, angry that Lugar moved to a Washington, D.C., suburb after getting elected. She said that's what's driving her vote.

"And [Mourdock] lives here. That is very important, and I know he will be back here," said Maher.

Bill Ward of Carmel, Ind., who with this wife, Emily, has supported Lugar in the past, said: "We have long appreciated Sen. Lugar, but I think we both are very tired of career politicians. Our country was founded based on citizen government."

Emily Ward also said she worried about Lugar's age.

"He's gotten, now that he's 80, very mellow. And it's only going to get more mellow in the next six years," she said.

Lugar has long been known as a moderate Republican, an increasingly rare breed in today's Congress. That's one of the things Lebanon, Ind., resident Jim Lucas likes about him.

"He's a statesman and he's been there the longest," said Lucas. "I am bumfuzzled by all the people that think that we ought to put in new people every election."

Lucas notes that if Republicans were to win back the Senate, Lugar would be in line to be chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee.

Republican control of the Senate is weighing on Mary Kemper as she prepares to vote. She thinks it's probably time for Lugar to retire, but she's planning to vote for him anyway.

"My main concern is I want a candidate that I feel can beat the Democrat," said Kemper, who said she's worried Mourdock may have a hard time beating the Democratic candidate, Rep. Joe Donnelly, in the general election. This is an idea the Lugar campaign has pushed in recent days.

"Indiana Democrats may have gotten the Republican nominee they really wanted," said Brian Howey, publisher of the nonpartisan Howey Political Report. "I've had sources in the Democratic Party tell me that a great deal of their fall campaign strategy was predicated on Lugar being upset."

Mourdock insists that if he wins Tuesday, he'll instantly have the support of the GOP establishment and all those outside groups who spent so big to back him in the primary.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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.