HPI Analysis: Lugar, Colts took different crisis courses
Friday, June 15, 2012 7:34 AM
This article was originally published in the June 7, 2012 edition of Howey Politics Indiana.
By BRIAN A. HOWEY
NASHVILLE, Ind. - As the year 2012 dawned on Indiana, two Hoosier icons teetered on the brink.
U.S. Sen. Dick Lugar shot on to the political scene in 1964 as an unknown Indianapolis School Board member, upset the incumbent mayor three years later and forged the Unigov reforms that would transform Indiana into a Republican bastion. After losing to legendary U.S. Sen. Birch Bayh in the Watergate year of 1974, he defeated U.S. Sen. Vance Hartke two years hence, beginning a 36-year tenure in the U.S. Senate where he helped save Chrysler Corp., overturn apartheid in South Africa via U.S. sanctions and a stolen Philippines election, and forged the historic Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction program that kept nukes and pathogens from the hands of terrorists like Osama bin Laden.
So popular, so powerful, Lugar didn’t even have a major party opponent for his 2006 reelection. It appeared that he had truly ascended into the realm of statesmanship. It appeared he had the latitude to crisscross the planet, spending his final years in public service seeking relationships while attempting to stamp out hunger, energy blackmail and weapons of mass destruction.
Yet, Lugar stood as an endangered political species, a “moderate” even with a conservative voting record consistently in the 80th to 90th percentile, while his Indiana Republican Party veered sharply to the right. On May 8, Lugar would not only lose to Indiana Treasurer Richard Mourdock, he was trounced in an epic landslide that only pollsters for Howey Politics Indiana dared predict – 61-39%. The man who loved being a U.S. Senator was retired by his own political party even as polls showed him to be a likely victor in the fall.
And there was Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning, an athlete who will join the Hoosier sports pantheon that includes names such as Rockne, Gipp, Bird, Robertson, Miller, Knight, Griese and Wooden. He would lead his team to a pair of Super Bowls, defeating the Chicago Bears for the state’s first big league title in three decades. There would be 10 straight seasons of double digit victories, as many Pro Bowl appearances and a record four league MVPs. So revered, there is a hospital named after Manning. He was seen as a state asset, transforming Indiana from a hoops hotbed into a sizzling gridiron that became a collegiate and NFL feeder system. And up until March 6, 2012, Manning believed he would be a Colt for life.
Just weeks after signing a $90 million contract that would have had Manning clad in the horseshoe for his entire career, it was revealed he had had four neck surgeries. He would miss the entire 2011 season, and watch as time bypassed the Colts’ aging roster. Not only would the team finish a dismal 2-14, it meant the team had the first draft choice, and there stood the next QB prodigy, Andrew Luck of Stanford University. Just as no one could have fathomed Lugar losing in a landslide, it would have been impossible for anyone to predict what would happen next.
In an unprecedented and unparalleled move, the Colts waived Manning on March 7. Manning and Colts owner Jim Irsay landed at Indianapolis International Airport the night before and drove off into a disturbing darkness, both citing “circumstances” that brought about the first epic sad day in Indiana this year.
At a noon press conference the next day, a tearful Manning would say, “Times change and circumstances change. Our circumstances make it best for us to take this next step. I have truly been blessed to play here. I go with just a few words to say. Thank you very much from the bottom of my heart. I have truly enjoyed being your quarterback.”
Within two months, Manning and Lugar found their legendary careers ending here.
How could these changes have happened?
Fans, analysts and scholars will be dissecting both stunning developments for years. But in this first draft of history, the easiest answer could be how two organizations – the Indianapolis Colts and the Lugar political wing – acted very differently when faced with dire “circumstances” that few could have predicted.
Both the Colts and the Lugar team heading into 2011 could be characterized by what I call being an “overly mature organization.” Both had management in place for more than a decade. For the Colts, it was General Manager Bill Polian who had been calling the shots since 1998. For Sen. Lugar, there was Chief of Staff Marty Morris, who had presided in that position since 1990. Both Polian and Morris had established contested performance legacies with few peers. For Polian, it was two Super Bowl appearances and a title, the 10 straight double digit winning seasons, and a knack for drafting great talent.
The same could be said for Morris’s reign over the Lugar organization. The Lugar staff recruited and spun off an array of dazzling policy talent, from members of Congress to party chairs, to business and advocacy leaders and those ascending key positions at the Pentagon. It created a vast consortium of networks, such as the Lugar Series for Public Excellence, which was a pipeline for 140 women to serve in the Daniels administration as well as Mike Pence’s lieutenant governor nominee, State Rep. Sue Ellspermann. Morris pioneered voter lists that campaigns would use to target turnout.
The Colts would win a Super Bowl. After losing to Sen. Bayh 51-46% in 1974, Lugar defeated Sen. Vance Hartke 59-40% in 1976, clipped U.S. Rep. Floyd Fithian 54-46% during the tough 1982 recession, before a series of landslides: 68% of the vote in 1988, 67% in 1994 and 2000, and without a Democratic opponent, 87% with 1.17 million votes in 2006 (including 81% in Democratic Lake County and 88% in St. Joseph). Lugar is the greatest voter-getter in Indiana history.
Yet, when faced with external threats, the Colts and Lugar organizations acted in opposite ways. The Colts cleaned house, sending Polian, his son, much of Coach Jim Caldwell’s staff, and then Manning and mainstay teammates such as Dallas Clark, Gary Brackett and Joseph Addai packing.
The Lugar organization stood pat, staying with an established campaign apparatus that had worked with vivid success for three decades.
But in a campaign run by that “overly mature” organization, there was no coherent message. Voters didn’t hear how Nunn-Lugar kept nukes and pathogens out of Osama bin Laden’s hands. While rural county Republican chairs defected to Mourdock, the campaign didn’t tell farmers how Lugar’s Freedom to Farm Act had resulted in increasing yields and ethanol production, and higher land values. Lost in the criticism of his votes for Obama Supreme Court Justices Kagan and Sotomayor were his introduction of Chief Justice John Roberts before his Senate confirmation and his support of Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas.
It wasn’t until the final Friday of the campaign - just hours after the Howey/DePauw Indiana Battleground Poll was published showing Lugar trailing Mourdock 48-38% - that the senator called a press conference at his Broad Ripple headquarters and succinctly made perhaps his most stirring case for reelection. Lugar appealed to farmers, veterans, Latinos, African-Americans, women, independents, Democrats to cross over and support him, citing a litany of achieved legislation and networks that had made powerful impacts on hundreds of thousands of lives.
Reporters - many of whom had attended a bizarre April 27 press conference at the Marrott Apartments - pushed by the National Republican Senatorial Committee which had intervened in the campaign - speculated that the Lugar speaking on May 4 had finally made a staccato case for his reelection that had evaded his advertising.
But with the bottom dropping out, it became clear the nimbleness of message had been lacking.
After his 61-39% defeat, Lugar said in a statement that he understood the changing dynamic. “Analysts will speculate about whether our campaign strategies were wise,” Lugar said. “Much of this will be based on conjecture by pundits who don’t fully appreciate the choices we had to make based on resource limits, polling data, and other factors. They also will speculate whether we were guilty of overconfidence. The truth is that the headwinds in this race were abundantly apparent long before Richard Mourdock announced his candidacy.”
The man behind the curtain
Morris, whom we often described in the annual HPI Power List as the “man behind the curtain” in Lugar World, had used a similar formula since Mitch Daniels had run the first two victorious Senate campaigns. He directed the campaigns out of Washington, all circuit funneled to him,and would place trusted operatives on the ground in Indiana as campaign mangers: Leslie Reser in 1994, Gayle Lowery in 2000, Nick Weber in 2006 and Emily Krueger this cycle. In the 1995-96 presidential run, strategist Mark Lubbers ran that national campaign. L. Keith Bulen had run Lugar’s losing campaign to Bayh in 1974.
There were differences for both organizations. The 2011 Colts dilemma came – pun intended – out of the blue with Manning’s injury, revealing the problems with an aging roster. The Lugar organization had a two-year head start on the Tea Party movement and its designs to take Lugar out. With the embers of the 2010 cycle still red, Lugar declared he would seek a seventh term in an effort to clear the field.
At a Carmel fundraiser in February 2011 in what amounted to the Lugar campaign kickoff, Lubbers sounded the alarm in his introductory speech. “Politics is rough and tumble. Not for the faint of heart. It is, at heart, civilized warfare,” Lubbers began. “Or in the vernacular of modern culture, a full contact sport – and no one is being fined for helmet-to-helmet contact.
“We should understand why and how this fight has come to us. The short answer is that the combination of a bad economy and the giant, absurd over-reach of Obamacare awakened a sleeping giant inside the American body politic. It became known as The Tea Party movement.
“We welcomed these fellow citizens into the fray,” Lubbers explained. “It seemed that what they believed was the essence of what we believe as Republicans. But as this wave has moved through the politics of the country, its shape and form has shifted. A handful of people are intent on organizing that anger and frustration into a campaign. To do what? The answer … to take Dick Lugar out.”
The Hoosier ground shifts
When Indiana Treasurer Richard Mourdock won reelection in 2010 with a million votes – and led the ticket in Howard County, home to the largest Chrysler industrial complex in the nation – he found himself being approached by Republican county chairs and GOP Central Committee members about challenging Lugar. Prior to his first run for treasurer in 2006, Mourdock had been a non-stop presence on the Lincoln Day Dinner circuit, and wrote hundreds of letters and sent thousands of Christmas cards to GOP activists. It coincided with Lugar’s emphasis on foreign travels.
Newton County Republican Chairman Kyle Conrad, in a May 10 column for HPI, noted, “As a county chairman and former district vice chairman, I never hosted our senior senator in my county until three months ago. He never popped in at a state committee meeting, rarely came to the GOP state convention other than to address the entire delegation, and there was never one of those Congressman Buyer moments when I’d pick up the phone and hear ‘Hi Kyle, it’s Steve.’ Senator Lugar didn’t know me, and I didn’t know him. I’ve seen Evan Bayh more times in Newton County than I have Richard Lugar.”
While the Lugar campaign made more than 1.1 million calls to voters prior to the primary, in retrospect the wiser phone strategy would have been to patch the senator into the 92 county chairs since his 2006 reelection and schedule him for Lincoln Day dinners. That is the first lesson in this defeat: A senator can never ignore the party. The defection of two-thirds of them in 2011 gave Mourdock the initial thrust toward credibility.
Chris Chocola, the former 2nd CD congressman who now heads the Club for Growth, sensed that Lugar was vulnerable more than a year ago. “What we saw throughout the process was when we asked people, ‘Do you know Dick Lugar?’ They’d say, ‘Well, yeah.’ Do you like Dick Lugar? ‘Well, yeah, I love Dick Lugar.’ Well, are you going to vote for Dick Lugar? ‘Oh, probably not. He’s been there too long.’ That was kind of the theme throughout, which is kind of unusual. You don’t get incumbents with 100% name ID, high favorables and horrible reelects. That’s something I don’t think Sen. Lugar ever believed. There was this classic ‘It was time for a change.’ We just saw that story develop and gain strength throughout the process.”
Fred Yang, the Democratic pollster from Garin-Hart-Yang Research Group and part of the Howey/DePauw Indiana Battleground Poll team, observed in the May 4 edition of HPI: “Back in January 2011, I conducted a statewide survey on behalf of Chairman Dan Parker for the Indiana Democratic Party, and I found a surprising result in one of our questions: Richard Lugar had a 28% reelect to another term score, and fully 56% wanted to make a change and elect someone else, and this result was among Republican voters. Thus, the findings of that poll made clear that Senator Lugar was vulnerable to a single challenger in a Republican primary. And that’s exactly what has seemed to transpire.”
It was a sudden transformation, coming in a state that President Obama visited 50 times in 2008 on his way to winning its 11 Electoral College votes, the first Democrat to do so in 44 years. Obama seemed invested in Indiana, making his first presidential visit outside of Washington in February 2009 to Elkhart. But he became not only an anathema to Republicans on the ground, but with Hoosier Members in Congress who moved lock-step against him. They denounced him as a “socialist” when he signed the Affordable Care Act, even though its roots came from the conservative Heritage Foundation two decades ago and Gov. Mitt Romney’s Massachusetts health mandates. Lugar had gone to Washington in 1977 as one of the most conservative senators. He leaves the Senate as one of its most moderate. The tectonic political plates had shifted dramatically under his feet.
Chocola felt that Lugar was so vulnerable that he sought out Lugar allies to try and convince him to retire. “If you just observe the political environment nationwide, you could see how someone like Sen. Lugar could be vulnerable,” Chocola said. “We did put a poll out in July that showed that he was vulnerable. That’s something I’m not sure Sen. Lugar grasped at the time. It was fairly obvious, poll or no poll, but the poll in July confirmed he could be vulnerable to a viable challenger, which Richard Mourdock actually was. I talked to some folks very close to Sen. Lugar and basically encouraged them to get Sen. Lugar to retire, out of basic respect. You would be doing the senator a favor and advise him of the situation. Retiring would be better than going through this kind of primary race. I don’t believe they believed it.”
When the Tea Party consortium “Hoosiers for a Conservative Senate” sprang up in late 2010, the emphasis was to keep the field to one challenger. They had seen former senator Dan Coats move back to the state from Virginia where he worked as a lobbyist and win a five-way GOP primary with 39% of the vote against three Tea Party candidates. The consortium gathered twice, with its endorsement of Mourdock in September 2011 in Greenfield.
Mourdock would issue what became his battle cry: “We do not need bipartisanship. We need principle. It is bipartisanship that is taking us to the brink of bankruptcy.” It was a 180-degree departure from the Lugar service mode.
In the modern television age of Indiana politics, no sitting U.S. senator had seriously been challenged for the nomination, and the Bayhs, Hartkes, Lugars, Quayles and Coatses always maintained firm control of their parties. That was obviously unraveling for Lugar in 2011. Lugar would win landslide victories because he always commanded the air war. But in 2012, it was as if the Luftwaffe had reappeared before the R.A.F.
Greg Fettig told the Greenfield rally that “government goes to the people who show up.”
Even the most seasoned Republicans didn’t see the totality of Lugar’s eroding support. Gov. Mitch Daniels was asked about the race by The Hill newspaper and he called Lugar a “mentor” and an “extraordinary public servant.” Daniels added, “I’m not sure he’s in that much trouble. My sense is he’s likely to win, he’s working hard, and he’s an icon in our state.”
But it wouldn’t be until December of that year and this past January that the one-challenger dynamic was in place. State Sen. Mike Delph was the first to rule out the race, followed by Bob Thomas, who in 2010 had unsuccessfully challenged then U.S. Rep. Mark Souder in the primary.
At least one Lugar ally - speaking on background - told HPI that without a third or fourth candidate, the race was essentially “unwinnable.”
On Election Night, after Lugar’s defeat – like Coats with 39% of the vote – Morris said he had pondered recruiting a third candidate, but that the Lugar organization would have had to conduct the ballot petition drive. That, he indicated, would have been complicated and messy.
With Delph and Thomas on the shelf, the one-on-one matchup die had been cast.
No one realized it, but the challenge – and the new campaign dynamic prompted by the Speech Now U.S. Supreme Court ruling that brought new bundling concepts to national groups- – would require different organizational emphasis on message, opposition research, resource allocation and strategy. A landslide loss only places the glare on how that transformation didn’t occur. Perhaps it was impossible.
Mourdock struggles, but does enough
With all the bad polling data facing Lugar, what turned out to be a confusing cross signal was the conduct of the Mourdock campaign, which was mediocre at best. It had trouble raising money, with the candidate lending his campaign at least $200,000. It did not seem to function like a well-oiled machine. It’s hard to see how Mourdock could have won had the national groups not come to his aid.
From the earliest stages, Mourdock seemed overly reliant on third-party sources. He told WISH-TV in July 2011 that an upset victory would be predicated on national groups coming in and a low turnout. “This race won’t be won by money,” Mourdock said. “Primaries are not about money. They are about organization and enthusiasm. Odds are this will be a very low voter turnout primary. That’s going to work to our advantage.”
The Lugar organization knew what was at stake, but in the end, Mourdock’s vision was on target. He was outraised by Lugar by $5 million to $2 million, but more than $4 million of outside money spilled in from groups like Chocola’s Club for Growth, the National Rifle Association and FreedomWorks. As the two campaigns and their surrogates traded nasty ad assaults, the voters were unimpressed, and turnout was just a paltry 22%.
Indiana Democratic Chairman Dan Parker predicted that Mourdock would force Lugar to steer dramatically to the right. Once that happened, Parker predicted, Lugar would turn off independents and some Democrats who might have been inclined to help him.
Lugar spokesman Andy Fisher told HPI, “The campaign was always working to appeal to likely primary voters and to expand that universe and the Republican tent where possible. Our phone bank and micro-targeting did a particularly good job at this. There finally was not enough horsepower to overcome the extraordinary spending from multiple national groups organizing to take down Sen. Lugar. Ultimately the Club for Growth, FreedomWorks and NRA swamped the efforts of our campaign, which was supported fully by the NRSC.”
Chocola saw the CFG role as essentially leveling the playing field. “The reality is, it’s hard to raise money in state against a six-term senator,” he explained. “The Republican establishment was not going to help Mourdock. A lot of folks from the grassroots standpoint are not large financial donors. They contribute their time and efforts. He had a legitimate challenge to raise money, particularly in state. We would have liked to see him raise more, but we understood the environment he was operating in. We decided to get involved because with our help, we saw he could win. That’s what we do, bring resources to the race so candidates can convey their message and voters can see there is a choice.”
Residency plays into the narrative
While the United States faces huge economic and foreign policy challenges ranging from deficits to health care to terrorism, it was Lugar’s residency that seemed to be the catalytic factor in the race. It found Indiana Democrats, eager to see Lugar defeated so that U.S. Rep. Joe Donnelly would have a more credible path to victory, tag-teaming in unprecedented fashion with Mourdock and the outside groups over Lugar’s history of voting from an address he had moved from in 1977. It had first surfaced in conservative blogs in the winter of 2011, but the Lugar campaign had cited Senate rules, the Indiana Constitution and two Indiana attorney general opinions to validate the arrangement.
Complaints before the Indiana Election Commission kept the issue in the headlines for more than a month. When the commission ruled 4-0 in Lugar’s favor, Democrats on the Marion County Election Board decertified his voting status just days later, refueling the headlines even longer. The campaign was buffeted by headlines like: “Lugar Appeals Ruling That He Is Not Indiana Resident.”
The residency issue had been an ankle-biter to other Hoosier politicians, dating back to 1986 when Republicans tried it against a young Evan Bayh. In 2010, Dan Coats had to move back to the state, buy property and brush off a 2008 video where he talked about retiring in North Carolina. That such an issue would resonate against someone like Lugar is one of the most significant subplots.
“Clearly the residency issue was pushed as the politics of personal destruction even though it had not been an issue in five previous campaigns, nor with other members of the Indiana delegation,” Fisher said. “But it was again not as significant as targeting by Club for Growth, FreedomWorks and other Super PACs that objected to Lugar’s stands on issues or style of leadership. We knew at least as early as 2010 that they would target the senator. As Sen. Lugar says in his statement, there were always headwinds but we continued to believe the race was winnable, and was so up until fairly near the end.”
Lugar was not the only one to fall to the issue, with former congressman and 2000 gubernatorial nominee David McIntosh losing a 5th CD primary by 800 votes, undone by the same issue.
There were other nagging problems, suggesting a classic death by a thousand cuts. The Lugar campaign had to recompensate $4,500 for past hotel bills when the senator was in the state for political purposes. The irony there was that Lugar’s office had returned hundreds of thousands of dollars to the U.S. Treasury over the years as he kept his office operating expenses down.
On March 22, Roll Call’s Shira Toeplitz captured the dynamic under the headline: “Dick Lugar’s Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Week.” And the campaign had to resort – too late as it turns out – negative ads against Mourdock. It was the first time that Lugar had gone negative. Some national strategists, commenting in retrospect, were surprised Lugar didn’t move to define and “destroy” Mourdock much earlier.
“I think they floundered for an argument — or they never thought they’d need to make one,” an Indiana GOP operative told Roll Call. It’s “petty, negative stuff that’s very common in our politics, but he should be above that. Tactically, I think it’s inconsistent with his brand.”
The fitful homestretch
As the campaign reached the homestretch, Chocola and Greg Fettig of Hoosiers for a Conservative Senate, sensed the upset, as did Mourdock, who was predicting victory on the campaign trail over the final three weeks. Fettig told me on the set of WFYI-TV the day after the election he believed more than a month out that Mourdock would win just from the vibe “on the ground.” The first Howey/DePauw Indiana Battleground Poll showed Lugar leading Mourdock 42-35%, but an incumbent that far below 50% is almost always poised for defeat. HPI moved the race from “Leans Lugar” to “Tossup’ on April 5.
But two other Howey/DePauw numbers jumped out: 81% disapproved of Congress, and 61% saw the United States on the “wrong track.” For any incumbent facing a credible challenger, those are sobering and dangerous numbers.
Lugar and Mourdock seemed to come to a draw in their only debate on April 11, though Mourdock established himself as credible. While columnists like myself, NWI Indiana Times’ Doug Ross, the Indianapolis Star’s Matthew Tully and the South Bend Tribune’s Jack Colwell all ardently backed Lugar, the younger reporters didn’t know Lugar. Few probed Mourdock’s complicated tenure as treasurer.
“Bottom line, it’s the economic crisis the country ... the debt crisis that we face,” Fettig told Gwen Ifill on PBS NewsHouse on May 9, for reasons why Lugar lost. “When Sen Lugar first was elected to office, the national debt was around $700 billion, and now it’s at $16 trillion. So I really don’t see, and most of my peers within the movement don’t see, how the same thing is going to get different results. So it was really time for a change.”
In that final month, two big twists occurred. First, the National Republican Senatorial Committee intervened. Lugar campaign sources told HPI that it prompted what is now the infamous Marrott press conference where the Lugar campaign seemed to dump the garbage can of complaints against Mourdock into one setting. The press conference lasted just 15 minutes, and reporters seemed to just blink at the array of information the Lugar campaign was trying to unload. The press began sensing blood in the water. The message seemed muddled, the Lugar brand violated.
Sources tell HPI that Lugar’s internals showed the senator still in the lead, but not for long.
Coinciding with this sequence were the two TV ads written by Gov. Daniels, with he and Lugar walking a tree line on the Lugar farm. Daniels - with a 63% approval rating in the March Howey/DePauw Poll (and 86% among Republicans) was always seen as a trump card for Lugar. “The truth can take a beating in campaign time, and this year it’s Dick Lugar on the receiving end,” Daniels says in the ad. “It’s funny in a way, these folks from elsewhere, here telling us who’s a real Hoosier. The way he votes, the way he lives, I can’t think of anyone so reflective of the thinking, principles, and ideals of our state. I’m not for Dick Lugar for what he’s done, but for what he can do.”
But campaign sources tell HPI that while the ads briefly pushed up Lugar’s positives, Mourdock’s positives also rose. Some speculate that Daniels and Lugar appearing together continued to emphasize Lugar’s age. And the two didn’t campaign together in the homestretch.
The bottom drops out
In the final week, the bottom dropped out for Lugar. On May 4, the second Howey/DePauw poll showed Mourdock leading 48-38%. Lugar’s internals showed a similar position and sources say the campaign stopped tracking on May 3.
Howey/DePauw Pollster Yang predicted a potential landslide victory for Mourdock, citing Lugar’s fav/unfavs had declined from 47/31% in our March survey to 43/43% in the final poll. The TV attacks were killing Lugar’s chances. Mourdock had the “momentum.”
Republican pollster Christine Matthews explained in the May 4 edition of HPI, “Close to three-fourths of voters supporting Richard Mourdock say it’s because of Lugar’s longevity or age or the fact that he lives in Virginia. These voters think Indiana’s senior senator has served too long. The comments relating to Lugar being too liberal, or Obama’s favorite Republican, or voting for his Supreme Court justices account for just about 15% of the reasons given for supporting Mr. Mourdock.”
Chocola saw the victory coming, but not at the magnitude it turned out. “We just saw that story develop and gain strength throughout the process,” Chocola said. “So when you put your poll out and you had Mourdock up by 10, it was a foregone conclusion at that point. We felt comfortable a month out. We felt the momentum was strong enough in Mourdock’s favor that we felt he would prevail. I don’t believe we predicted it would be 61-39. It was a pretty shocking result when you think about it, and a pretty strong statement.”
Lugar’s post-defeat insights
Sen. Lugar offered his own insights into the defeat. “I would reiterate from my earlier statement that I have no regrets about choosing to run for office. I believed that vital national priorities, including job creation, deficit reduction, energy security, agriculture reform, and the Nunn-Lugar program, would benefit from my continued service as a senator. These goals were worth the risk of an electoral defeat and the costs of a hard campaign.”
These themes, however, did not emerge in the Lugar ad campaign. Having not defined Mourdock early, the Lugar campaign had to do it in March and April, violating the brand.
Lugar acknowledged, “One does not highlight such headwinds publically when one is waging a campaign. But I knew that I would face an extremely strong anti-incumbent mood following a recession. I knew that my work with then-Senator Barack Obama would be used against me, even if our relationship were overhyped.”
On that point, Obama had mentioned Lugar in his 2007 presidential campaign kickoff speech in Springfield, Ill., and in his 2008 Democratic convention acceptance speech in Denver - virtually the only Member of Congress he consistently cited. His 2008 campaign used images of him and Lugar working together in the Senate and during a diplomatic tug-of-war on an airstrip near Perm, Russia. Lugar only mildly objected, and those images by the President were used by the Tea Party, the Mourdock campaign and its surrogates to underscore a damning title: “President Obama’s favorite Republican.”
Lugar added, “I also knew from the races in 2010 that I was a likely target of Club for Growth, FreedomWorks and other Super PACs dedicated to defeating at least one Republican as a purification exercise to enhance their influence over other Republican legislators. We undertook this campaign soberly and we worked very hard in 2010, 2011, and 2012 to overcome these challenges. There never was a moment when my campaign took anything for granted. This is why we put so much effort into our get-out-the-vote operations. Ultimately, the re-election of an incumbent to Congress usually comes down to whether voters agree with the positions the incumbent has taken. I knew that I had cast recent votes that would be unpopular with some Republicans and that would be targeted by outside groups. These included my votes for the TARP program, for government support of the auto industry, for the START Treaty, and for the confirmations of Justices Sotomayor and Kagan.”
In the aftermath of his defeat, Lugar paints a troubling picture of life in Congress without him. “I don’t remember a time when so many topics have become politically unmentionable in one party or the other,” he said. “Republicans cannot admit to any nuance in policy on climate change. Republican members are now expected to take pledges against any tax increases. For two consecutive presidential nomination cycles, GOP candidates competed with one another to express the most strident anti-immigration view, even at the risk of alienating a huge voting bloc. Similarly, most Democrats are constrained when talking about such issues as entitlement cuts, tort reform, and trade agreements.”
“Our political system is losing its ability to even explore alternatives,” Lugar said. “If fealty to these pledges continues to expand, legislators may pledge their way into irrelevance. Voters will be electing a slate of inflexible positions rather than a leader.”
On May 27, he told Bob Schieffer on CBS’s “Face the Nation”: “A large portion of the Republican Party of Indiana believed, apparently, in the idea of individualism as opposed to community – a sense of compromise or a sense of talking across the aisle.” And he noted the national trident aimed at him from Club for Growth, NRA and FreedomWorks, explaining, “They are able to come in early on with hundreds of thousands and millions of dollars with negative ads, which turned around what usually was an approval that I had from 60 to 70 percent for all of these years, and it went down real fast in the last two or three weeks under that barrage.”
The Club For Growth is evasive on whether it will seek an alternative to Sen. Coats in 2016, saying it will depend on how he votes.
A Mourdock victory over Donnelly in November will only instill the idealogical purity the movement seeks. A Mourdock loss will lead to epic finger pointing on the GOP loss of a Senate seat, just as it had in Delaware and Nevada two years ago.
Chocola believes that Donnelly’s support for Obamacare will deliver Mourdock to the Senate in November, saying recent polling will be the Democrat’s “high water mark.”
Howey/DePauw pollster Yang sees a pure tossup. “The surprise is that Mourdock did NOT get much more of a ‘bump’ from his impressive primary victory over Senator Lugar,” Yang observed. “Mourdock arguably had probably the BEST free press week of the campaign the week after the primary, and the best he can achieve is a tie with the Democrat. Overall, Mourdock in the Donnelly poll was 36% favorable, 37% unfavorable - highly polarizing. But our April GOP primary poll did hint at Mourdock’s difficulty in a general election, as he was getting a fairly high 57% unfavorable from Lugar voters. I am assuming Mourdock will consolidate Republicans as November approaches, but the Donnelly poll and even our late March poll both hint at the same thing - a Mourdock-Donnelly race will be a barn-burner until the end.”
As we head deeper into 2012, Hoosiers find Peyton Manning in a Denver Bronco uniform, and Sen. Lugar weighing options in academia and think tanks, saying on “Face the Nation” that his next role will likely be “outside government.” He has endorsed Mourdock, but on Election Night scolded him for his inflexible stances.
There is no guarantee that Irsay’s organizational house cleaning would be any better decision than the Lugar organization adhering to a formula that made it the juggernaut that it was for three decades.
If Manning wins a couple of Super Bowls for the Broncos and Luck turns out to be a bust - like more than half of first round drafted quarterbacks turn out to be - Irsay’s decisions will join other sporting busts such as the trades involving Babe Ruth and Frank Robinson (and at least the Red Sox and Reds received something in return). If Mourdock loses this fall, Lugar’s defeat will become a historic Republican blunder.
The comparison here comes because when the Colts and Lugar organizations faced dilemmas, they responded in polar opposite ways. It will require future historical drafts to determine how they ultimately pan out.