Fellow Indiana Republicans won't back Lugar in primary: 'Let voters decide'

It wasn’t that long ago that Rep. Mike Pence called Sen. Dick Lugar his “hero,” but now Pence, like several other Indiana Republicans, is staying neutral as Lugar faces one of the toughest primary challenges of his career.

Pence told The Hill on Tuesday that he still considers Lugar (R-Ind.) “a mentor and a friend,” but that he’s staying out of next year’s GOP Senate primary. 

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“I’ve known both men and respected both men for more than 20 years, and I think that when you have two good choices in a primary, you ought to let voters decide,” he said. “I consider Richard Lugar a mentor and a friend, and Richard Mourdock is someone I have admired as well.”

Mourdock, the Indiana state Treasurer, entered the primary in late February to much fanfare, rolling out the backing of a majority of GOP county chairmen from across the state. He’s also a favorite of the Tea Party movement, which has named Lugar as one of its top targets for 2012.

But Pence has always spoken well of the six-term senator. During a National Press Club event in 2006, he called Lugar “a hero of mine in Indiana.”

“He still is,” Pence said Tuesday. “When you have the level of respect and affection for both candidates that I do, the right thing to do is just to let voters decide.”

Next year’s Lugar-Mourdock showdown will prove a test of Republican loyalties as Pence and Gov. Mitch Daniels (R) wrestle with the dynamic at play in the Senate race while looking ahead to possible 2012 campaigns of their own.

Pence appears headed toward a gubernatorial run, and Daniels is a rumored presidential hopeful — aspirations that could be complicated if either of them decided to wade into a Tea Party-versus-establishment candidate showdown.

A Pence endorsement would arguably provide some conservative cover for Lugar, who is under assault from Tea Party groups for his voting record. 

Pence’s support of Sen. Dan Coats (R-Ind.) in last year’s primary served a similar function for Coats, who was seeking a return to the upper chamber.

Pence supported Coats in a primary that pitted the establishment Republican against Tea Party-backed challengers Marlin Stutzman and former Rep. John Hostettler (R-Ind.). As Coats was getting hammered by conservative activists early in 2010, the former senator touted the endorsement from Pence, who called Coats “a proven conservative leader.”

“When Dan Coats called and told me he was willing to make that race, I expressed encouragement to him and I felt it was the right thing to do at the time,” said Pence. “The right and proper thing for me to do in this instance is to let the voters decide.”

In a recent interview with The Hill, Mourdock said he expected the biggest names in the Indiana GOP would remain neutral. Daniels has already told him that his loyalties lie with Lugar.

But Daniels remains the greatest looming question for Lugar. The relationship between the two goes back decades, with Daniels serving a chief of staff for Lugar in the Senate and serving under him at the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) as executive director.

It’s unknown what level of public commitment he’ll give the senator going into 2012.

The relationship between Pence and Lugar isn’t as tight as the one between Lugar and Daniels, but the two have worked together in Congress, most recently on the Free Flow of Information Act. They have also met over lunch in recent weeks.

Still, neither Pence nor Coats will weigh in on Lugar’s behalf.

“My decision isn’t limited to this one race,” Coats told The Hill. “It’s a general practice I have to not endorse in a primary among Republicans. I have great respect for both candidates.”

Coats said based on his experience in 2010, “I think primaries are healthy and I know that I came out a better candidate in the end.”

The Republican senator, who endured some of the same hits from conservative activists that Lugar is enduring, said he was thankful for support he received from Pence and others in his primary race. 

“I was happy that they [endorsed me],” said Coats. “But I’m still sticking with my practice to not get involved in primaries.”

He was not endorsed by Lugar in the 2010 primary.

For his part, Lugar isn’t counting on any support from the state’s top Republicans, either.

Nor does the Lugar camp think it needs those endorsements. A source close to the senator wouldn’t rule out the possibility of a more public showing of support from Daniels at some point, but said of Pence, “He has his own race to run and we understand that.”

The NRSC has said little publicly on the match-up. The committee is officially supportive of its incumbents, but NRSC Chairman John Cornyn (Texas) has previously said the committee won’t become entangled in Senate primaries this cycle.