At The Indy Star:
The tea party movement may force Sen. Richard Lugar to dust off his gloves for the first time in more than 30 years
By Mary Beth Schneider
By Mary Beth Schneider
Four years ago, Republican Sen. Richard Lugar was considered so unbeatable that Democrats didn't bother to field a candidate against him.
Now, he's facing the likelihood of a challenge from within his own party.
Tea party activists and other social conservatives are actively searching for a candidate around whom they can unite to beat Lugar in the 2012 primary election.
How remarkable is that? Lugar hasn't had a primary opponent since "Happy Days" ruled the TV ratings and "(Shake, Shake, Shake) Shake Your Booty" topped the charts. That was 1976 -- the year Lugar first went to the Senate.
But dissatisfaction -- and even downright anger -- has been building among some conservatives. They watched in dismay earlier this year when Lugar voted to confirm liberal Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan. This month, they were at odds with Lugar when he defended congressional earmarks; backed a bill to help some illegal immigrants who came here as children earn a path to citizenship; and stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton to push for a new nuclear treaty with Russia.
"He's bombarded us" in the past couple of weeks with reasons to oust him, said Diane Hubbard, an Indianapolis Tea Party organizer who was among 65 people who protested Lugar's co-sponsorship of the immigration bill -- called the DREAM Act -- outside his Indianapolis office Saturday.
The same day, a smaller group of tea party activists and conservatives from across the state calling themselves Hoosiers for Conservative Senate, met in Fishers to begin organizing a challenge. They plan to meet again Jan. 22 in a much larger public forum to discuss how to coalesce around one alternative to Lugar.
Monica Boyer, the 35-year-old organizer of the Kosciusko Silent No More tea party group, was among those at Saturday's meeting. She wasn't even born when Lugar first went to the Senate. And he already was a veteran there when she began casting her ballots for him.
No more, she said.
"I'm a die-hard Republican," Boyer said, "and I will never pull the lever for Richard Lugar again."
Lugar said in an interview that he is doing what he always has: Standing up for what he thinks is right, whether it's arguing that eliminating earmarks wouldn't save a dime but simply hand over spending decisions to the White House, or whether it's joining a Democratic president to get a nuclear arms treaty he considers vital to national defense.
"I really couldn't care less whether the tea party or whoever else it is, is interested. Somebody has got to be," Lugar said of his support for the START treaty. "It's a basic reason I am running for re-election."
And, he added in an e-mailed statement Monday, he's pleased that Hoosiers for Conservative Senate will meet in January -- and hopes they'll realize he's the conservative they're looking for.
"I will warmly welcome the support of all Hoosiers who have encouraged my conservative idealism as I have tried to exemplify it through word and deed, and who are now eager for me to carry on the good fight," Lugar said.
Even that vote for Kagan, his office stressed, is proof of his conservatism.
"He's being a strict constitutionalist" in voting based on qualifications, and not ideology or party politics, said spokesman Mark Helmke.
And the DREAM Act? That, Helmke said, would help those who came to the U.S. as children and have proved their merit in college or in the military.
"To deny them," he said, "is just un-American."
Lugar is taking the threat of a challenge seriously. In late October, he commissioned a poll of 800 registered Indiana voters to gauge their view of him, as well as 15 other politicians. There were big names, such as Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich. And there were names that even most Hoosiers can't identify, such as State Treasurer Richard Mourdock and state Sen. Mike Delph, R-Carmel.
Mourdock and Delph made the list for one reason: Both have been mentioned as challengers to Lugar.
The poll, taken by American Viewpoint and with a margin of error of 3.5 percentage points, found that Lugar is viewed favorably by 66 percent of Hoosiers, with only 19 percent having an unfavorable view. Mourdock -- whose name was recognized by only 49 percent of those polled -- was viewed favorably by 14 percent and unfavorably by 9 percent. Delph, a familiar name to only 30 percent, was viewed favorably by 7 percent and unfavorably by 2 percent.
Lugar suggested those numbers should be a dose of cold political reality to anyone considering a challenge.
"I'm not diminishing the thought that someone may want to conduct a race," Lugar said, "but at the same time, the realities of it are that we have strength, and if I'm well-organized, well-financed and we are doing all the right things in terms of our appearances and our work on behalf of Hoosiers, that we have a very good chance of being re-nominated and re-elected."
Delph found it flattering.
He couldn't believe, he said, that Lugar would include him in a poll.
Although Delph has been critical of Lugar's positions on earmarks and the arms treaty in his blog, he said he's focused on the upcoming legislative session, not the 2012 election.
Mourdock, a particular favorite of tea party activists, said a lot of the talk of a potential Senate run by him is "irrational exuberance" after an election in which he earned more votes than any other Republican on the November ballot and coasted to re-election as treasurer.
Still, Mourdock said that "the door is open" to a potential run against Lugar.
Those considering a challenge are encouraged by other tea party-backed candidates who won in this year's elections, such as Marco Rubio in Florida, and not dissuaded by those candidates such as Joe Miller in Alaska and Christine O'Donnell in Delaware who lost in the general election.
Still, Boyer said, "we want a George Washington. We want somebody who, No. 1, can win."
That means, she said, finding one candidate to rally around.
"Our fears," Boyer said, "is we'd have another Dan Coats situation."
Coats won only 39 percent of the vote in the May primary, as tea party supporters split their votes among him and four other Republicans in the U.S. Senate race.
"We did not speak with one voice," Boyer said, "and so we know deep down in our gut a caucus will be necessary this time."
Unity, though, doesn't ensure victory.
Micah Clark, executive director of the conservative American Family Association of Indiana, pointed to Arizona, where the tea party united behind former U.S. Rep. J.D. Hayworth, now a radio talk-show host, over Sen. John McCain in that state's primary.
Establishment Republicans anticipate Lugar will as well.
Lt. Gov. Becky Skillman said she expects Lugar "to be our U.S. senator as long as he wants to be our U.S. senator."
And Indiana GOP Chairman Murray Clark -- not related to Micah Clark -- said he isn't convinced that a primary challenge to Lugar is "a fait accompli."
"There may be some conservatives who are unhappy with him. But on the whole, he's been a great statesman and a great spokesperson and advocate for Indiana. I'd like to see them all sit down in the same room (with Lugar) and walk through these issues before mounting what could be a divisive primary challenge."
Democrats are hoping for just that. Indiana Democratic Party Chairman Dan Parker said that Democrats won't give the race a pass like they did in 2006. And if Lugar is defeated or wounded in the primary, they'd have an opening to win back the seat they lost this election.
"The moment Democrats see Dick Lugar could have a fight on his hands and be wounded and damaged, that's going to spark some interest," said former House Speaker John Gregg, D-Sandborn.
Boyer and other tea party activists said they know what they are up against.
"It's going to be a David and Goliath battle," Boyer said. "But we believe that we can take on anything. You can't tell us, 'You can't do that.' "