Lugar: From top target to tea party pal?
Last year, Sen. Dick Lugar was the tea party’s top target — a 35-year veteran who lives in Washington, strays from conservative orthodoxy and even criticized the right-wing movement in the wake of the 2010 elections.
But last week, Lugar was the tea party’s dining companion.
For more than two hours at a restaurant in Carmel, Ind., Lugar sat face to face with the head of one of Indiana’s largest tea party chapters, speaking at length about campaign politics, the senator’s voting record and some of his comments that have irked the movement. Lugar listened patiently and said he’d do more outreach, as he ate his eggs Benedict and peppermint ice cream.
“I was surprised,” said 62-year-old Chuck Ford, president of the Tea Party of Hamilton County. “I don’t usually dine with senators and congressmen.”
Lugar, who is facing a May primary challenge from state Treasurer Richard Mourdock, is now engaged in a lobbying campaign to woo tea party activists, many of whom have already lined up against his reelection bid. Whether Lugar succeeds is a big test for a tea party that finds itself splintered in the Republican presidential primary and faces a central question: Can it once again roil GOP primaries and successfully take down old-school incumbents the way it did in 2010?
Some Republicans hope times have changed.
“I think people also learned from 2010,” said Texas Sen. John Cornyn, chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, which supports Lugar. “Just because you can win a primary doesn’t mean you can win a general election, and your goal is to win the general election.”
Cornyn added, “So I think people are a little more sophisticated when it comes to electabilility.”
The mild-mannered Lugar is now trying to highlight the conservative stances in his record of more than 12,000 votes — such as his backing of the Keystone XL pipeline — and he’s taking a much tougher line on President Barack Obama. In an interview, he said that he’s been “complimentary” of tea party groups and is trying to make the case that “it’s not a universal situation that I’m running against tea party groups, even though some have been very visible indicating their opposition to my reelection.”
“I would say they have different points of view with regard to me,” Lugar said in the Capitol.
Lugar is by no means in the clear with tea party activists. To many in Indiana, he represents the mentality of the Washington establishment — a six-term veteran who supported Obama’s Supreme Court nominees and the Wall Street and auto bailouts and who hasn’t maintained a residence in Indiana since 1977.
Monica Boyer, co-founder of the tea-party-backed Hoosiers for a Conservative Senate, said her group is launching a campaign highlighting Lugar’s lack of residency in the state for more than three decades. The state’s Constitution allows Lugar to live outside Indiana if he’s working on official U.S. business, and Lugar has kept his home in Washington in order to save cash. When he travels in Indiana, he mainly stays in hotels and at friends’ houses.