Lugar’s struggles increase as Tea Party’s other targets fall

The Tea Party has lost a number of its top election targets this year, leaving Sen. Dick Lugar (R-Ind.) to emerge as public enemy No. 1 for national conservative groups — and poll numbers suggest they could get their man.

Groups including the fiscally conservative Club for Growth, Tea Party-affiliated FreedomWorks and the National Rifle Association have increasingly prioritized defeating Lugar, and social-conservative groups like Gary Bauer’s Campaign for Working Families and the Eagle Forum have endorsed Indiana state Treasurer Richard Mourdock (R), Lugar’s primary opponent.

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Mourdock remains largely unknown to voters, but in a recent poll he trailed Lugar by just 7 points, 35 percent to 42. The Club for Growth and NRA are already both up with major ad buys against Lugar, and other groups plan to follow suit.

“It is a big focus of ours,” Club for Growth President Chris Chocola told The Hill.

Lugar might be suffering from some fizzled challenges in other states. National groups originally mentioned Sens. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) and Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) as possible targets, but Snowe is retiring and no serious opponents emerged against Corker. Another declared target is former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson (R), but he’s in a primary crowded with conservatives, thus splitting the vote and making it harder to beat him.

And Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) seems to be in good shape to survive his state’s primary process after FreedomWorks spent more than $650,000 to defeat him. The group has since cut back on spending there.

“Lugar is more vulnerable than Orrin Hatch. Hatch has swung hard to the right, built up his staff,” said FreedomWorks Vice President Russ Walker. “Lugar, on the other hand, is more like what we saw in 2010 with these incumbents: He’s been unwilling to say, ‘I’m sorry for what I did’ — he’s been more belligerent about it.”

Mourdock has welcomed the outside help. When The Hill contacted him Monday afternoon he was in Atlanta for a fundraiser with Tea Party favorite and RedState.com founder Erick Erickson, an event that former presidential candidate Herman Cain was originally scheduled to attend.

He admitted that some of his Tea Party compatriots’ struggles had helped his cause.

“It’s allowed there to be more of a focus around this race,” Mourdock said, and predicted that once the Republican presidential primary wrapped up, “all eyes will be on Indiana.”

Down-ticket Tea Party challenges have also faded, another sign the movement’s ability to defeat incumbents could be on the wane. 

The Club for Growth ran some early ads attacking Rep. Tim Murphy (R-Pa.), but with his primary two weeks away, it has made no moves toward backing his challenger, former Capitol Hill staffer Evan Feinberg.

“Feinberg hasn’t raised much money,” said Chocola. “We think he’s great on the issues, but you have to be viable.”

Perhaps Mourdock’s biggest endorsement came from the NRA, which almost never endorses against incumbent Republicans. Its move, and the moves from the social conservative groups, opened Lugar up to other attacks besides those on economic issues. 

“We haven’t been this involved in a GOP primary in a very long time, if ever,” said NRA spokesman Andrew Arulanandam. “Sen. Lugar has never been an ally to gun owners and we never had a viable option against him until this year.”

 The NRA is spending hundreds of thousands of dollars in the race and is already up with television and radio ads as well as direct mail pieces sent to its members.

“It’s a high priority — just look at the amount we’re spending,” Arulanandam said.

The Lugar campaign recognizes it is the groups’ top target and has pushed back hard against them. 

The campaign has explicitly sought to frame Mourdock as a puppet of the groups. “Richard Mourdock has already sold out to D.C. outsiders,” opens its latest ad.

“This is the last playground for these national groups,” said Lugar spokesman Andy Fisher.