INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — U.S. Sen. Richard Lugar, once seemingly unbeatable in Indiana, has been scrambling to reintroduce himself to Hoosiers amid a barrage of attacks that he has lost touch — an argument his tea party challenger repeated Wednesday in front of the Indianapolis home the incumbent sold decades ago.
The Republican who has spent 35 years in Washington has been campaigning as though he was a rookie politico, trying to introduce himself to the masses and define his image before opponents do.
The charge by GOP challenger Richard Mourdock is just the latest in a series of them levied against the Republican senator by an unlikely alliance of Democrats and conservatives who have joined forces to argue Lugar no longer has much to do with Indiana. Both sides sense political vulnerability from the state's senior senator.
"We decided that when we have a campaign theme about the senator no longer being in touch with Indiana, the perfect place to kick off this campaign is here, in front of the house he once owned," Mourdock, the state's treasurer, said Wednesday.
While nearly all members of Congress have living arrangements in the Washington, D.C., area, most own homes or rent apartments in the states they represent. Lugar, who owns a home in Virginia, typically stays in hotels when he returns to Indiana and no longer has a physical address there.
The Lugar campaign attempted to spin the residency issue in a fundraising appeal sent Wednesday evening, saying of Mourdock: "Now, he's claiming Dick Lugar isn't even a Hoosier! Really? Dick Lugar isn't a Hoosier?"
An Indiana tea partier filed voter fraud allegations against Lugar last December, claiming he has committed fraud each time he has voted since selling his Indianapolis home in 1977. Hoosiers for Conservative Senate, a tea party umbrella group backing Mourdock, planned to petition Gov. Mitch Daniels Thursday to act on the complaint, but Daniels — who has been mentored by Lugar throughout his career — dismissed that idea
"I don't think he's been qualified for ballots in past years and of course again this year," said Monica Boyer, HFCS co-chair.
It's unclear whether the legal challenges could carry much weight considering two Indiana attorneys general have determined that elected officials serving in Washington do not need to live or maintain a home to be a legal resident of the state.
However, Lugar's recent flurry of political activity could signal he is anticipating his first major re-election threat in years.
Next week, Lugar is going to five Lincoln Day Dinners, the epitome of ground-level political fundraisers that are critical for building Republican support but are often skipped by entrenched incumbents. He has planned meetings with voters throughout the state and will join Fort Wayne volunteers in a phone-bank to gauge support for his re-election.
The Lugar campaign also has spent $1.1 million on airtime since last summer. One ad showing him walking side-by-side with Ronald Reagan as a young senator and attacks President Barack Obama. In 2008, when Obama aired an ad in Indiana showing him and Lugar together, Lugar didn't disavow the ad — though he didn't endorse the Democrat either.
Though Indiana voters narrowly backed Obama, Republicans continue to dominate the state, so Lugar's challenge to persuade conservative voters to stick with him could be almost as important as trying to win over Democrats. Tea party candidates have already claimed some victories over Republican incumbents, and Lugar appears to be one of the most endangered in this year's contests.
Mourdock got a boost this week from the conservative Club for Growth, which promised to spend money in Indiana trying to oust Lugar. While the group has not said how much it will spend, it is guaranteed to help Mourdock begin closing a massive funding gap: Lugar ended last with $4 million in the bank compared to Mourdock's $362,000.
Although the two-pronged attack from the left and right has less to do with legality than building an image of Lugar as an entrenched Washington politician, more a part of a Congress that has garnered tremendous public ire.
But Darrell West, vice president of governance studies at the Brookings Institution, called Lugar's residency a "bogus issue" being pushed by critics.
"Senator Lugar has gone back to the state regularly and has been upfront about residency issues," West said. "This is a case of opponents seeking to manufacture a campaign issue to discredit the senator."