Debt Debate Shades Richard Lugar’s Fight for Reelection

ABC News' Shushannah Walshe ( @shushwalshe) reports:

Ending the debt ceiling stalemate in Washington will require some bipartisanship. Neither side has the votes to pass their plan without help from the other party before an Aug. 2 deadline. But it has become politically perilous to work across the aisle. Just ask Sen. Richard Lugar, who is the longest-serving federal lawmaker in Indiana history, and who is in the fight of his political life.

In Indiana, state treasurer Richard Mourdock, who’s hoping to unseat 35-year incumbent Lugar, is hoping to use the gridlock to his advantage.

Mourdock is zeroing in on Lugar’s relationship with President Obama, which Mourdock calls “a burr in the saddle of every Republican paying attention.” Mourdock is also accusing Lugar of not acting quickly enough to back the conservative cut, cap and balance proposal that passed the House, but failed in the Senate last week.

“I was stunned that he was the last of the Republican senators to get on board with the cut, cap and balance,” Mourdock told ABC News. “The day before it went to Harry Reid, Lugar suddenly said, ‘Yeah, me too’ and jumped on to co-sponsor.”

Mourdock added that Lugar has voted to raise the debt ceiling in the past, something the Tea Party supported candidate hopes will work to his advantage with conservatives. He says that on the campaign trail he constantly meets voters who say they respect the 79 year-old-senator, but that “it’s time” for a change.

The Lugar camp says it’s just not true that the senator was late to sign on to cut, cap and balance, and that Lugar has been involved throughout the year on spending issues. Lugar’s spokesperson for his senate office, Andy Fisher stressed that the senator didn’t just back the bill but added his name to the list of co-sponsors. “That’s a full endorsement,” he told ABC News.

Legislation requires thought, Fisher added. “It’s quite simple to be able to campaign when you are not in the position of responsibility of studying the proposals and making certain the proposals are good ones.”

Fisher added that Lugar is co-sponsoring Sen. Pat Toomey’s “Full Faith and Credit Act,” which will ensure payments are made to Social Security recipients, the military and interest on the national debt if the government does go into default.

Brian Howey, author of Howey Politics Indiana, says until the outcome of the debt ceiling deal is known, it’s too early to know how the debate could affect this campaign.

“Lugar and Mourdock have very different stances. Lugar’s remarks have been that he is very concerned about U.S. credit being downgraded and what that could do to the economic standing of a dollar, and Mourdock is signing on to the Tea Party position that failure to raise the debt ceiling along with default is not a bad thing,” Howey told ABC News. “If we were to get into a default and spin down into a double dip recession, that could hurt Richard Mourdock even in a Republican primary, certainly in a general election… The Mourdock strategy is riskier at this point.”

The person who’s playing a starring role in the campaign as much as either candidate is President Obama.

Lugar put out the first television ad for his re-election bid last week, blasting the president on the economy and showing footage of the longtime senator with President Reagan. The ad doesn’t mention Mourdock.

Mourdock’s campaign up until now has been primarily focused on trying to align Lugar with President Obama. He cites Lugar’s voting for Obama’s Supreme Court choices and backing the new START Treaty, among other issues.

“One of the things that came up in our [internal] poll is the fact that he supported Obama on so many different issues. It’s really painful for our base to accept,” Mourdock said.

Mourdock has released two Web videos, one of which features Obama on the 2008 campaign trail praising Lugar, plus 2009 footage of Lugar complimenting Obama. The second claims that Lugar is President Obama’s “favorite Republican.”

Besides the commercial, Lugar has made other moves to distance himself from the president, including criticizing him on his decisions in Libya. David Willkie, the political director for Lugar’s campaign, says that Lugar’s relationship with Obama is just like those he’s has had with other presidents and that past presidents have consistently looked to Lugar “for advice.”

“Dick Lugar has respected the office of the presidency, but at the same time he tells it like it is, so this is no different when both President Bushes, President Reagan and even President Clinton have come to Dick Lugar seeking his advice,” Willkie said.

Howey said the president’s low approval rating in the Hoosier state and past relationship with Lugar could affect the campaign, but Howey believes it’s not what’s going to swing voters in the end.

“I just doubt that with anyone [except] Mourdock’s hard core supporters, I just doubt that will be the thing that turns the election,” Howey said.

What Howey does think will make a greater impact is the vast disparity in fundraising between the two campaigns. Lugar raised $900,000 the last quarter and finished June with $3.5 million in cash on hand. Mourdock only raised $300,000 last quarter and the campaign told ABC News it has $213,000 cash on hand.

Mourdock said he’s not worried about the disparity because he always knew the long-serving senator would beat him in fundraising.

“In a primary there’s money and there’s passion. I’ll take passion every time,” he said, referring to the volunteers he says flock to his campaign. Of course in a campaign, money does matter, and it is outside groups that the Mourdock camp hopes jump in.

The anti- tax group Club for Growth ran ads earlier this month, targeting Lugar and warning him not to vote in favor of raising the debt ceiling.

On Tuesday, the Club released a poll it conducted among GOP primary voters in Indiana showing Mourdock leading Lugar 34% to 32% if the primary were held today. But the Club has not yet endorsed Mourdock, telling ABC News, “We are just looking at the race. We don’t have a timeline for any endorsement.”

The Mourdock campaign said although they can’t actively work with the Club for Growth, due to campaign finance laws, and other 527s like conservative activist group FreedomWorks they are “confident” they will back Lugar’s challenger.

FreedomWorks has been on the ground in Indiana and tells ABC News their goal is to “oust Richard Lugar,” but they say they are waiting for Tea Party supporters in the state to unify around Mourdock before endorsing.

Howey says that unlike some of the Tea Party wins in the midterm elections last year, the Lugar campaign will not be caught off guard.

“The Lugar political organization is cutting-edge and they understood the threat early on, and they take it seriously and are working very hard fundraising, but also with operations,” Howey said. “They are geared up for a major challenge…nobody is going to sneak up on the Lugar campaign.”

Whoever does win the primary battle will then take on Indiana congressman Joe Donnelly. Six years ago Lugar didn’t have a Democratic challenger and the Democratic campaign is clearly gleefully hoping that it’s Mourdock they take on instead of the Senate’s longest serving senator. But whoever it is, they say, they’ll be ready.

Donnelly spokesperson Ben Ray said that both Lugar and Mourdock “don’t represent the interests of working and middle class families” and that Donnelly is running “to give working families a real voice in Washington that Sen. Lugar has lacked and Mourdock has rejected.”

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