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Indiana Treasurer Richard Mourdock (AP/Photo by Michael Conroy)

Hoosier hopefuls

Politics | Indiana Tea Partiers look for a conservative contender to challenge Sen. Richard Lugar in 2012

INDIANAPOLIS-Can a decentralized Tea Party movement unify around one conservative challenger to take on veteran Republican Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana? A group called Hoosiers for a Conservative Senate will tackle that dilemma at a caucus meeting.

Tea Partiers, who tend to lean libertarian, don't want government bureaucrats taking their money or telling them how to live their lives. They also don't want to take orders from political bosses. Yet to pose a serious challenge to Lugar in the 2012 Republican primary, the Tea Party would need to rally around one candidate, preferably one who is not a newcomer to state politics.

Options from Indiana include state Treasurer Richard Mourdock, state Sen. Mike Delph, 2010 Republican U.S. Senate primary candidate Don Bates Jr., or 2010 Republican U.S. House primary candidate Kristi Risk.

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Mourdock just won his second race for treasurer, leading Republican victors in statewide contests with more than 1 million votes.

Newly elected state Sen. Jim Banks thinks Mourdock would be a strong challenger: "He is a formidable candidate for anything he wants to run for statewide. Of 92 Republican county chairmen, I bet 92 of them have Richard Mourdock's cell phone number."

Mourdock also might choose a more conventional move up the political ladder by running for Indiana's lieutenant governor in 2012. He attracted national news in protesting the 2009 automaker bailout, for putting union pensions ahead of state bond purchasers in the bankruptcy proceedings.

Delph has a similar dilemma, weighing a challenge to Lugar against a possible run for Indiana's 5th Congressional District seat held by Republican Dan Burton.

"I think our good senior senator will be challenged by a conservative, and I hope there will be only one candidate," Delph said.

There is a generational side to this push to retire Lugar. As mayor of Indianapolis, he pushed the city limits to the Marion County line and set the foundation for city and state's big-league status-the Colts, the convention center, the NCAA headquarters, and a busy downtown. He also has been the leader of a Republican domination of state politics for more than a generation, not even facing a Democratic opponent in his last race.

For many in the Tea Party that is ancient history and not a reason to reelect Lugar. Or as viewed in other parts of the state, it's propaganda from the big city.

But Lugar was a pioneer, laying Indy's groundwork while other Midwestern cities such as Detroit, St. Louis, and Cincinnati lagged behind.

As a senator, he has become a statesman of international distinction, and even his potential opponents speak respectfully of him. He has set the record for longevity in the Senate from Indiana, now in his sixth term, while Indiana voters have limited all other senators to three terms at the most. Lugar, in fact, defeated one of those three-term senators, Democrat Vance Hartke, when he was first elected in 1976.

As a political mentor, he has launched dozens of others into public service. The most famous is a potential presidential candidate named Mitch Daniels, who has earned a reputation as a fiscal conservative by balancing the state's budget as other Midwestern states have drifted into large deficits.

"Lugar is beyond any political figure in Indiana history," said Fort Wayne City Council member Mitch Harper, a Republican.

He thinks Lugar could skip a Republican primary and win as an independent, with a coalition of Republicans, Democrats, and independents: "Dick Lugar among Democrats in Fort Wayne-how can you say anything against him? He has that breadth of support."

Whether Lugar is conservative enough is what a primary debate would settle. He has a pro-life voting record and has fought waste in government with a crusade against farm subsidies. But he does not pursue those tasks with glamour and rhetorical flourishes. He is also an old-fashioned gentleman who can work with Democrats, and some of his critics don't approve of that approach to government. Lugar is also old-fashioned in voting for Elena Kagan for the Supreme Court, because he believes the advise and consent vote should be based on judicial qualifications, not ideology, and he can remember when both parties practiced that approach before the Democrats blocked the nomination of Robert Bork to the court and changed the rules of the Supreme Court game.

Against a legend like Lugar, Tea Party members will have to fight their own instincts. And they will have to centralize their efforts around one conservative candidate.

Russ Pulliam
Russ Pulliam

Russ is a columnist for The Indianapolis Star, the director of the Pulliam Fellowship, and a member of God's World Publications' board of directors.

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