INDIANAPOLIS - Senator Richard G. Lugar sounded wistful in his gratitude when he thanked supporters packed in the skybox of the Indiana Pacers’ home court, as though he could see the approaching end of a political career that has spanned nearly half a century.
“I thank all of you, the 50 or 60 of you who are cosponsors of the rally. We appreciate very much your willingness to put your own names on the line and be helpful in bringing together this assembly,’’ said the Indiana Republican, who was first elected to the Senate in 1976.
That characteristically understated demeanor has endeared Lugar to generations of Hoosier voters. It belies the fierce battle in Republican circles over whether to retire him now or give him six more years in Washington.
Lugar and Utah’s Orrin G. Hatch, who were sent to Capitol Hill in the same year, are the Tea Party movement’s top Senate Republican targets for defeat this year, portrayed as old bulls out of touch with today’s conservatives. Both 78, they are the GOP’s two most senior members in the Senate.
Both have come out swinging, a lesson learned when Hatch’s fellow Utah senator, Robert F. Bennett, had his reelection bid derailed two years ago by the fledgling Tea Party movement in the state GOP’s nominating convention.
Hatch has shored up his support, furiously courting delegates to this year’s convention on April 21. He has emphasized his seniority and covered his flank with more conservative stances and votes.
Lugar also started early, hiring a full-time campaign manager in the fall of 2010. He built an extensive network of campaign volunteers, and by the first of this year had amassed a 10-to-1 cash advantage over his Tea Party challenger, state Treasurer Richard Mourdock.
Lugar, however, has had to play a frantic defense heading into the May 8 primary after tea partyers, joined by Democrats, turned the incumbent’s residency outside the state into a dominant campaign issue.
He fumbled questions about the address on his driver’s license: an Indianapolis home he sold in 1977. He had to switch his voter ID to his farm in Indianapolis after the local election board ruled last month that he couldn’t vote using the 1977 address. Lugar, who owns a home in Virginia, also repaid the US Treasury $14,700 last month that his Senate office paid for his hotel stays in Indiana.
“That’s a self-inflicted wound. It just doesn’t look good symbolically,’’ said Margaret Ferguson, who heads the political science department at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis. “Things that have been brushed aside now carry some momentum that they would not have in the past.’’
Conservatives have rallied around Mourdock, a geologist and quiet campaigner who three years ago challenged the Chrysler bankruptcy terms in the Supreme Court. The Club For Growth, National Rifle Association, Citizens United, Hoosiers for Conservative Senate, and FreedomWorks, a Tea Party umbrella group, have endorsed him.
The Club for Growth purchased more than $250,000 in airtime over the past two weeks for anti-Lugar ads after spending $160,000 against him last year. FreedomWorks has spent $100,000 in Indiana.
“Lugar is still in control of this race, but it’s tight, much tighter than it was six months ago,’’ said Andy Klingenstein, one of a trio of former aides who formed the Indiana Values super political action committee to battle on Lugar’s behalf.
Lugar’s power in Indiana Republican circles is legend, multiplied by generations of aides and operatives who cut their teeth with him in the 1960s when he was mayor of Indianapolis. He has been insulated from serious challenges within his party and even Democrats have considered him invincible, choosing in 2006 not to field a challenger.
But a strong anti-incumbent mood and pressure from the right to define who really is a conservative have forced the well-funded Lugar to turn to super PACs like Klingenstein’s, which is airing ads attacking Murdock.
Monica Boyer, one of the leaders of Hoosiers for Conservative Senate, said she, like most other Indiana Tea Party supporters, had always voted for Lugar because “he had an ‘R’ in front of his name.’’ The tipping point, she said, was when Lugar voted to confirm President Obama’s Supreme Court nominees, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan. That was a “hard wake-up call,’’ she said, that spurred tea partyers to dig deeper into Lugar’s voting record. There, she said, they discovered votes for an assault weapons ban and other moderate stances that have led critics to say Lugar is Obama’s “favorite Republican.’’
“We learned how to use the roll call system. That’s probably his worst nightmare right now,’’ Boyer said.
The tightening of the GOP race has left Democrats giddy. Pushing their own candidate, US Representative Joe Donnelly, they look at what once was considered a safe Senate seat for Republicans as now in play in the general election.
Hatch, who needs 60 percent of the state GOP convention delegates to win on the first ballot, appears to be faring better in Utah. Supporters have spent more than a year emphasizing the importance of his seniority as the top Republican on the tax-writing Senate Finance Committee and his influence on federal land issues and the next round of military base closings.
“I’m in a position that benefits Utah in a fantastic way,’’ Hatch said. “This is going to be my last term. I’m committed to that. But it’s going to be the best six years you’ve seen.’’
That argument has played well with state GOP convention delegates, some of whom said during recent caucus meetings they feared having two first-term senators from the state. It also was underscored in an endorsement by leading Republican presidential contender Mitt Romney, who is extremely popular among Utah Republicans.