By Cameron Joseph - 05/08/12 09:25 AM EDT
Sen. Dick Lugar’s (R-Ind.) predicted primary loss on Tuesday is being seen as the result of a weak campaign and inexperienced staff, according to numerous observers of the race.
A recent poll showed Lugar trailing Indiana state Treasurer Richard Mourdock (R), his Tea Party challenger, by 10 percentage points. While Lugar’s campaign argues the poll is a week old and that it is still in the race, it has not released any of its own polling numbers.
Many Republican strategists who are neutral in the race or back Lugar say that he failed to take Mourdock seriously until it was too late, much like what happened to Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), Rep. Mike Castle (R-Del.) and other Republicans who lost primaries to Tea Party challengers two years ago.
“He did not run a campaign recognizing the lessons and taking to heart the lessons of the 2010 election,” said one Republican strategist who is rooting for Lugar to win. “He could have defined Mourdock early on, and failed to do so. They chose not to, and now they’re in this position today.”
Strategists say many of the problems Lugar has faced stem from the lack of time he’s spent in the state in the last few years. Shortly after Mourdock jumped in the race, he was endorsed by three-quarters of the Republican county chairmen across the state.
“When all these county Republican chairs come out of the gate to endorse your primary opponent, that means you haven’t been doing the chicken dinner circuit, the calls you need to make, the structural part of your campaign,” said one Republican strategist who’s followed the race closely.
Lugar, a six-term lawmaker, was later ensnared in a lengthy fight over whether he was an Indiana resident, a losing battle protracted by his own campaign. He failed to reconnect with local Republican and Tea Party leaders early in the campaign, as Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) began to do two years ago, and refused to attack Mourdock before he gained traction, as Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) did to his 2010 Tea Party challenger, former Rep. J.D. Hayworth (R-Ariz.).
If Lugar loses his primary on Tuesday, he cannot run as an Independent or a write-in candidate because of Indiana’s “sore loser” law, which prohibits any candidate who loses in a primary from switching parties or running as an Independent in the general election.
Lugar spokesman Andy Fisher admitted that the residency fight was a “negative period” for the campaign but argued that there had been “a lot of shifting in the past week” since the poll was taken showing Lugar down 10 points.
“We’ve made a quarter-million get-out-the-vote phone calls since then; we’re having a very effective GOTV effort,” Fisher said.
He also disputed the argument that Lugar’s campaign could have been run better.
“Sen. Lugar’s chief of staff has been involved with him on every campaign since 1982, and we certainly had a team of highly skilled consultants, some of the best in the business, who have been involved in different aspects of the campaign,” he said. “It would not be at all accurate to indicate this campaign has anything but a strong campaign operation.”
A number of people said if Lugar had done what Hatch has done in Utah, and reconnected with local conservative activists early on, he might have been able to keep big-spending outside groups like the Club for Growth and National Rifle Association from jumping into the race.
“These groups go in when they sense weakness,” said one strategist.
Most of the people Lugar asked to run his campaign are longtime Capitol Hill aides with little to no campaign experience — his campaign manager, Emily Krueger, is a foreign policy expert who spent five years in his D.C. office but had never managed a competitive race before this one. Many of his top campaign deputies have spent more time in Washington than on the campaign trail or in Indiana in past years.
The roughest point in Lugar’s campaign was a weeks-long fight over whether he could vote at the address he’d been using for decades, a home he’d sold shortly after winning his Senate seat in the late 1970s. Lugar’s campaign fought the issue for weeks despite a number of negative headlines. They ended up settling the matter out of court, and Lugar was allowed to vote using the address of a farm he owns in the state, but many believe the battle made it much easier for his opponents to argue that he’d “gone Washington.”
Lugar admitted this past weekend that his campaign hadn’t been perfect, but insisted he was happy with its overall effort. “Obviously, you can always think back over things that could have been done better,” Lugar told The Associated Press. “You never have 100 percent.”