Lugar not too worried about a possible Tea Party challenge emerging in 2012


While most of his GOP colleagues are heeding the advice of their Senate campaign chiefs and preparing for conservative primary challengers, Lugar is bucking his party on several high-profile issues.

Last week, he split with Senate Republicans, rejecting a voluntary, two-year ban on congressional earmarks.

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He posed for pictures with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) as part of a photo-op on the START arms-control treaty between the U.S. and Russia, which is expected to come up for a vote next month. Lugar, in contrast to most of his GOP colleagues, supports the treaty.

He’s also said he would vote to take up the defense authorization bill, which contains a repeal of the “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, as long as Democrats allow a fair amendment process.

And he’s one of nine Republican senators who did not sign onto a legal brief challenging the healthcare reform law. Aside from Sen. Scott Brown (Mass.), Lugar is the only Republican up for reelection in 2012 who didn’t lend his name.

In an interview with The Hill, Lugar said he is well-aware of his differences with other Republicans, but denied the party has become too conservative for him or that he is considering retirement.

“These are just areas where I’ve had stances for a long time,” Lugar said. “I didn’t adopt them to be contrary. I think what’s occurring is, the Democrats are trying to get passage for things in the last stages of their majority, so a number of these issues have arisen because of that. I have no other explanation.”

In a political atmosphere that has seen successful Tea Party primary challenges to incumbent GOP senators such as Bob Bennett of Utah and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, some analysts say Lugar’s independent streak could spell trouble.

Stuart Rothenberg, editor and publisher of The Rothenberg Political Report, says Republican centrists such as Bob Corker (Tenn.), Olympia Snowe (Maine) and Lugar will be probable targets.

“If I was Dick Lugar, I would certainly expect a challenge,” he said. “Any Republican up in 2012 shouldn’t discount the possibility of a Tea Party challenge. Those voters have proven they are interested in forcing a certain discipline in the party, and anybody who veers away from that shouldn’t be surprised.”

But Lugar has several reasons to be confident. He recently released an internal poll that showed him as the most popular Republican in Indiana, and he has some $2.4 million in the bank.

Also, he saw Republican Dan Coats beat Tea Party favorites Marlin Stutzman and banker Don Bates Jr. in the 2010 Indiana GOP Senate primary. Coats went on to win the general election.

And Lugar hasn’t faced a tough election since 1982.

But Tea Party groups are already batting around names for the 2012 primary, including Bates, conservative state Sen. Mike Delph and state Treasurer Richard Mourdock.

Another one to watch is Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels, whose term expires in 2012. He’s a Tea Party favorite, though there has been speculation Daniels will make a presidential bid.

Lugar, 78, a native of Indianapolis, has already announced plans to seek reelection. He has served in the Senate since 1977, after eight years as Indianapolis mayor, and has twice chaired the Senate’s Agriculture and Foreign Relations committees. A frequent overseas traveler, he is widely respected in the GOP conference for his views on foreign policy, which Democrats are using to try to persuade other Republicans to support the START Treaty.

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Lugar’s independent streak is well-known — a friend of the president’s, he voted for Obama’s two Supreme Court nominees, Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor. He also co-sponsored the DREAM Act with Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), to provide a path to legal residency for children of illegal immigrants.

Citing that background, Jennifer Duffy, a senior editor and Senate analyst for The Cook Political Report, said Lugar is simply being himself. Like Rothenberg, she expects he will draw a primary challenge.

“His vote ratings on defense and foreign policy have always been a little more moderate,” Duffy said. “He’s also been very clear on his position on Supreme Court nominees — as long as they are qualified, then he would support them. These long-held views are very likely to earn Lugar a primary in 2012. But he remains popular and would be favored to win the nomination. This is not to say that he won’t have a lot of work to do to avoid suffering the fates of Sens. Bennett and Murkowski.”

Shane D’Aprile contributed to this article.