Indiana's Sen. Richard Lugar is fighting to show his worth

Matthew Tully
Indianapolis, Indiana

Any doubts about whether Sen. Richard Lugar was in political peril this primary season were wiped away by a telling flurry of news releases his office and campaign unleashed over a two-hour period one recent afternoon.

Collectively, the releases had the feel of a veteran politician feverishly working to reverse a tide that has turned more treacherous than most could have imagined not long ago.

Six years after both fellow Republicans and rival Democrats gave Lugar an almost unheard-of free pass on his way to another re-election, the living definition of a statesman is now everyone's favorite piñata -- achieving the feat of bringing liberal Democrats and tea party conservatives together in the cause of defeating him.

And, thus, the news releases on a recent Thursday:

At 4:23 p.m., Lugar's office issued a tough-sounding statement about the much-debated Keystone XL Pipeline: "Lugar to Obama," its headline read. "The battle is not over."

A half hour later, the senator's office released a photo of him meeting with Hoosier constituents.

Shortly after that came the release of a campaign document touting his anti-abortion voting record, followed by news releases highlighting Lugar's criticism of agriculture regulations and, at 6:26 p.m., the work he's done to fight weapons of mass destruction.

Together, the missives sent messages that Lugar is desperately trying to sell as the May 8 GOP primary approaches: That he's fighting the Democratic president; that he hasn't forgotten about Indiana; that he is more conservative than his Republican critics charge; and, finally, that he remains a forward-thinking and powerful senator.

We'll see if it works.

But how did we get to this point? How did Richard Lugar, long revered and seen by many as untouchable, find himself facing a fierce primary challenge in which he's had to defend everything from his conservative credentials to his relevance, and even his status as a Hoosier?

"In some ways, this isn't about Senator Lugar," said Michael O'Brien, a supporter and chairman of the Hendricks County Republican Party. "He didn't really change. He's doing the same thing he's done for years -- being an independent guy who isn't beholden to any special interests. But right now, the politics are amplified and polarized -- and he's just never been that polarizing type of guy."

Ultimately, the underlying causes of Lugar's problems are as straightforward as they are sadly emblematic of politics circa 2012. While he has contributed to his woes with self-inflicted stumbles, the foundation of his political jeopardy is based on his rejection of partisan nastiness, his decision to focus on being a senator and not a chicken-dinner-circuit Republican, an increasingly divisive political climate, and the general hostility many voters feel toward Congress.

What was once Lugar's strength -- his ability to rise above the partisanship and D.C. wars, and to craft deals with those on the other side of the aisle -- is seen by many Republicans this election cycle as a severe weakness.

A more activist conservative base has emerged both nationally and in the state, and, as Republicans prepare to select their Senate nominee, it's targeted Lugar. Among some on the right, defeating him has become a cause of sorts. Groups that insist on complete ideological unity -- such as the National Rifle Association -- have pounced on this and, with few other competitive Senate primaries nationwide, they are leading the charge against Lugar with heavy rhetoric and big-dollar ad campaigns. 

Read more here.