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Hoosiers For A Conservative Senate is leading the fight to oust Indiana’s longest serving senator, and some big outside interests have taken notice
By Michael Summers
Fort Wayne Reader
Unless you’ve been living under a rock (perhaps a rock in Virginia), you’ve probably heard just a little something about the controversy surrounding Senator Richard Lugar’s residency.
It started about a year ago, when those corners of the blogosphere concerned with Indiana politics started bubbling with questions about where Lugar — a six-term US Senator and the third most senior senator in Congress — actually lived for purposes of voting in Indiana. Lugar listed an address in Indiana is a farm; he’s actually lived in Virginia since being elected to the Senate in 1976, and stays in hotels when visiting his state.
While it started small, the issue has grown in the past year or so, pushed into the wider public consciousness by political opponents who see the Senator’s seat as vulnerable, and some of the loudest complaints have come from an area the Senator’s camp probably didn’t expect — conservatives.
An organization called Hoosiers For A Conservative Senate — an affiliation of TEA Party groups from across the state — has called into question Lugar’s conservative credentials, citing what they perceive as a liberal voting record; an unacceptable “chumminess” with the Obama administration; and a focus on matters that aren’t in the interests of the citizens of Indiana. They’re backing their own candidate, State Treasurer Richard Mourdock, who will be Lugar’s first primary challenger since… well, since Lugar was elected in 1976.
And it’s arguably thanks to the efforts of Hoosiers For A Conservative Senate that Mourdock’s campaign has garnered attention from several key national conservative groups, some of whom have already contributed resources to the campaign.
So while the Indiana Attorney General’s Office may have ruled in late February that Senator Richard Lugar is, for voting purposes, a resident of Indiana, Hoosiers For A Conservative Senate hope that in the court of public perception, voters see Lugar’s residency as just one aspect of a larger problem — that the incumbent has lost touch with residents of his home state.
“When you sell your house in 1977, that tells me how out of touch you are with your constituents,” says Monica Boyer, co-founder of Hoosiers For A Conservative Senate. “It’s a true issue with Hoosiers. We want someone who can relate to us, who is not out of touch.”
And once again, just to be clear, the residency issue is just one complaint Hoosiers For A Conservative Senate have against Lugar. In the organization’s overall platform, it’s a relatively minor issue, though a useful one in getting their larger message out to a wider audience.
Boyer, a resident of Warsaw, co-founded Hoosiers For A Conservative Senate with Greg Fettig, who owns a landscaping business in Indianapolis. A social and fiscal conservative, Boyer became politically involved after she says state regulations to the child care industry threatened her business, Little Treasures Day Care, in 2004. She became involved in Indiana Voice For the Family, a conservative group focusing on social issues, and later helped start Kosciusko County Silent No More, a grassroots TEA Party group. “In 2008, when Obama was elected, we just knew we had to do something,” she says. “We realized the social issues really didn’t matter without the Constitution.” They organized a meeting, and Boyer says that they were “counting family members,” hoping somebody would show up. “That Saturday, over 1,300 people showed up, so we realized we weren’t alone.”
But while Boyer and other TEA Partiers may have had plenty of like-minded souls in Kosciusko County, a couple years ago it seemed that every TEA Party group was an island unto itself, especially in Indiana, and blunted the movement’s effort to become a political force. “In 2010, we had a group of awesome TEA Parties who really wanted to take back the Senate, but we lost that battle because all of us had a dog in the fight,” Boyer says, referring to the five Republican Senate contenders vying for Evan Bayh’s vacated seat. “We each had a candidate we supported. We all agreed that we didn’t want Dan Coates to win, since he was the establishment, but because we split the vote, he won.” Boyer adds that Coates has proven to be a really conservative Senator… “So we really lucked out in that regard. But we knew that we couldn’t do it this time.”
Boyer got in touch with Greg Fettig, who brought three TEA Party leaders from the southern part of the state, while Boyer brought three from the north, and the two were able to do what in 2010 seemed nearly impossible — unite many of the state’s disparate TEA Party groups under a single cause, which was finding a single candidate to go up against Lugar.
Not that it was all that easy… “Last year at this time, if you would have asked me, I would have said ‘we’re going to die’,” laughs Boyer. “When we started, we had a lot of kickback, because all these individual groups were proud of what they’re doing, but they don’t want anybody coming in telling them they’ve got to do something. Antennas went up — ‘what do you mean we’ve got to do this?’”
“But the reason it worked is that (Hoosiers For A Conservative Senate) is an issue-based organization, so when this race is over, that organization is gone,” Boyer continues. “It’s not a ‘top-down’ organization. We put our program together in the form of a house, with the foundation being unity.”
The group had a representative from each of the nine districts in the state, and when they met in January of last year, they developed a vetting system for potential candidates. State Treasurer Mourdock hadn’t even entered the race at that point. “When we built that format, we built it not caring who was going to run,” Boyer explains. “We were not looking for the ‘who,’ we were looking for the ‘what’ — what do we want in a candidate?”
They eventually found their “who” to fit the “what” in Richard Mourdock (which turned out to be a bit of fortune for Hoosiers For A Conservative Senate, since Mourdock ended up being the only conservative candidate running). Now serving his second term as the Treasurer of the State of Indiana, Mourdock announced in February 2011 that he would challenge Lugar in the primaries this year. Hoosiers For A Conservative Senate endorsed Mourdock later in September. Mourdock wasn’t even running yet when Boyer met him a little over a year ago. “When I heard him speak about the Constitution and the role of government, my ears perked up,” says Boyer. “I also happen to be a social conservative, and when you hear him on those issues, there’s no question.”
Just to be clear, Hoosiers For a Conservative Senate is not the Mourdock campaign. Boyer says they’ve set up a “shadow campaign” with a representative in almost every county, helping to get their message out. “We don’t really talk to the Mourdock campaign. We can say anything we want on this side, we can expose Lugar’s record for what it is. It has worked out nicely.”
Mourdock’s campaign has also drawn the attention of three prominent conservative groups on the national level. In late February, Club For Growth — a 527 group focusing on economic issues — joined Tea Party Express and FreedomWorks in endorsing Mourdock. (and just as a sideline for all you Indiana political geeks… err, I mean enthusiasts, the current president of the Club For Growth is Chris Chocola, former US Representative from Indiana’s 2nd District, who ran twice against current 2nd District Representative Joe Donnelly, the Democrats’ candidate for Lugar’s Senate seat).
“Lugar has an abysmal voting record on issues that matter to fiscal conservatives,” says the Club For Growth’s Communications Director Barney Keller. “He voted for the Wall Street bailout, he voted for the auto bailout. Just last month he voted against a permanent ban on pork barrel projects, commonly known as earmarks.”
These groups could bring a lot more than bragging rights to Mourdock’s campaign. FreedomWorks has been providing grassroots-style activism to the effort to oust Lugar, putting money into flyers, mailings, and other “boots on the ground” activities — around $100,000 worth, according to Boyer.
The Club For Growth, on the other hand, doesn’t do lawn signs, bumper stickers, or phone banks. Its specialty, says Keller, is independent expenditure advertising — TV and radio ads — which it buys through its Super PAC.
The Club is also able to contribute via its Club For Growth PAC. “The Club for Growth PAC is what actually endorses a candidate,” Keller says. “Through our PAC, Club members can contribute to candidates that our PAC has endorsed. So, because our PAC has endorsed Mourdock, our PAC will be bundling contributions from Club members to his campaign.”
Obviously, the Club For Growth’s Super PAC can’t coordinate with Mourdock’s campaign, and Keller says the organization doesn’t coordinate with any other pro-Mourdock groups. “We’re completely independent of any other group,” he explains. “The buys we make through the Super PAC are independent expenditures. We have our own media consultants who decide how to create advertising for us, place the ad buys, things like that.”
“We obviously do a lot of due diligence before we decide to make an endorsement through our PAC. We were certainly aware of the support Mourdock has from Hoosiers For A Conservative Senate. We think it’s an excellent group that is providing the boots on the ground for the Mourdock campaign.”
Keller can’t say how much the Club For Growth intends to spend on the race in Indiana. “I can tell you that in the past, in similar races, the Club’s PAC has been able to bundle up to a million dollars worth of contributions, and we’ve done anywhere from $1-3 million worth of independent expenditures,” he says. “But the past is not necessarily prologue. If Mourdock starts running away with it, there’s no reason to spend money.”
There might be an irony that the candidate “in touch with Hoosiers” is receiving a boost from national organizations outside the state, but Mourdock’s supporters are probably just glad for the help. By all accounts, Lugar won’t be easy to defeat in a primary, and Mourdock supporters might have a tough time convincing voters of Lugar’s “liberal” record. An astute observer of politics will no doubt be shocked — shocked — to find that the Mourdock campaign’s materials provide a pretty general and selective assessment of this “liberal” voting record.
For instance, Hoosiers For a Conservative Senate criticizes Lugar for voting “for Obama’s $700 Billion TARP financial industry bailout,” when TARP was signed into law under the Bush administration, and was supported by quite a lot of Republicans.
And a brief rundown of a few key issues has Lugar voting like… well, a Republican. He voted against President Obama’s health care legislation. He voted against the “stimulus act” in 2009.
On social issues, Lugar voted against repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” He voted for the Federal Marriage Amendment, defining marriage as between one man and one woman.
While many gun rights advocates don’t like Lugar because he supported the assault weapons ban, on another hot button conservative issue — abortion — the National Right to Life Committee rates him pretty favorably, though the Hoosiers For A Conservative Senate only says that “Lugar has enthusiastically voted to confirm liberal nominees to the Supreme Court that have publicly supported legalized abortions…”
It’s true that Lugar has voted to confirm liberal nominees to the Supreme Court, but he also voted to confirm Chief Justice John Roberts in 2005. And Samuel Alito before that. And Clarence Thomas… He has also been known to work with Democrats — in fact, the piece of legislation for which he is most famous, the Nunn-Lugar program, was the result of working with a Democratic Senator, Sam Nunn of Georgia.
And sometimes a political career is more than a voting record. That Nunn-Lugar program, also know as the Cooperative Threat Reduction Program, has won the Senator a lot of accolades. Its mission, as per the CTR’s website, is to “secure and dismantle weapons of mass destruction and their associated infrastructure in former Soviet Union states.” Lugar is considered an authority in the field.
While this is a very brief sketch of a very long career, for the most part, Lugar’s record could only be seen as liberal by the standards of today’s “all or nothing” political climate. What you could say is that in some instances during his 35 years in the Senate, Lugar occasionally seems to have engaged in the novel practice of conceding a point to a political opponent in return for a concession on their part. Once upon a time, that used to be called politics, and as messy as it could be, it was also the way government got things done.
Whether that makes Lugar vulnerable remains to be seen. Recent Lugar ads tout the Senator’s bill that forced President Obama to make a decision on the Keystone XL Pipeline. He also joined forces with TEA Party favorite Marlin Stutzman for a farm bill proposal that would offer $40 billion in program savings over 10 years. This is part of government business as usual for Lugar, of course, but they also might indicate he has heard the criticism from Mourdock’s supporters.
Still, as of this writing, there’s been no independent polling on the Lugar vs. Mourdock race; an internal poll by the Lugar campaign put their candidate up by 20 some points, though internal polls tend to do that. A better indication might be fundraising. Despite the enthusiasm Mourdock has generated in certain quarters, his fundraising remains soft — over $700,000, compared to Lugar’s $4 million war chest. Boyer points out that Lugar, of course, had quite a head start, and that it doesn’t reflect what she’s seeing and hearing in the trenches. “I think what you’re looking at is a grassroots campaign,” she says. “Lugar started out with $3.2 million in his war chest. If you look at his records, you can see how much he’s been given by corporations, lobbyists, how much comes from out of state — there’s no question we’re dealing with a money gap. But with Mourdock’s campaign, you’re talking Hoosiers, families, taking out of their pockets to give to Mourdock.”
“Our boots on the ground out number Lugar’s boots on the ground,” Boyer continues. “When we do our phone banking, it’s 3-1 Richard Mourdock. Actually, I take that back: it’s 3-1 anyone but Lugar. And then when we introduce them to our candidate, they are so grateful. So right now it’s just a matter of letting people know there’s a conservative choice.”