INDIANAPOLIS | The belief that Republican U.S. Sen. Dick Lugar cannot be beaten, perhaps one of the greatest articles of faith in Indiana politics, faces its toughest test ever Tuesday.
According to public opinion polls, state Treasurer Richard Mourdock is on the verge of bursting the Lugar invincibility bubble and handing Lugar his first loss since 1974, when Lugar nearly toppled legendary Democratic U.S. Sen. Birch Bayh.
Lugar won his Senate seat in 1976 by defeating Democratic U.S. Sen. Vance Hartke and since then has had a pretty easy ride on the campaign trail. He has won an average of 62 percent of the vote in six elections, usually cruising to victory with support from two-thirds of the electorate.
His only relatively close race came in his first re-election bid in 1982 when Lugar defeated U.S. Rep. Floyd Fithian, D-Lafayette, 54 percent to 46 percent. In 2006, the Democrats didn't even run a candidate against him.
This year is different.
An anti-incumbent mood, a well-qualified challenger and questions about whether Lugar is still up to the job have combined to make Lugar more vulnerable than ever before.
If Lugar loses, he'll be only the second six-term senator in U.S. history to not win his party's nomination for a seventh term, according to researchers at the University of Minnesota. The other was Tennessee Democratic U.S. Sen. Kenneth McKellar, who lost a 1952 primary to U.S. Rep. Albert Gore Sr.
But Lugar is not going down without a fight. The 80-year-old senator has unleashed seemingly every weapon in the campaign arsenal to hang on to his job.
Throughout April and May, reporters and Lugar supporters have been pinged almost hourly with emails touting the latest iteration of Lugar's campaign theme that Mourdock can't be trusted. Lugar has accused Mourdock of cheating on his taxes, breaking into Republican Party databases, investing state funds with campaign contributors and lying on financial-disclosure forms.
"Every day, Hoosiers are learning more about troubling questions facing Richard Mourdock, and the more they learn, the more they don't trust him," said Andy Fisher, Lugar's spokesman.
Because of its placement in the costly Chicago media market, Northwest Indiana largely has been spared the radio and television ads questioning Mourdock's trustworthiness and conservative credentials that are the background noise to life in Indianapolis and elsewhere in the state.
Lugar also has accumulated a near-endless list of fellow Republicans supporting his campaign, including Gov. Mitch Daniels, Lt. Gov. Becky Skillman, Valparaiso Mayor John Costas, LaPorte Mayor Blair Milo, the Indiana Chamber of Commerce and even Pat Boone, the 1950s pop star who sang last month at a Lugar fundraiser in Monticello.
But despite all that and even after spending nearly $5.5 million, compared to $1.7 million for Mourdock, Lugar can't seem to pull ahead.
Andrew Downs, assistant professor of political science and director of the Mike Downs Center on Indiana Politics at Indiana University-Purdue University at Fort Wayne, believes several things are holding Lugar back. They include questions about Lugar's residency, as he has not owned an Indiana home since 1977; the senator's age (if he wins he'll be 86 at the end of his term); and the stigma of being considered part of the Washington, D.C., "elite."
Mourdock has worked to capitalize on all of those issues by running on the theme "It's time" — a not-so-subtle suggestion that Hoosier Republicans dump Lugar as their party's standard-bearer.
Voters will decide Tuesday if they agree.