Having recently turned 80 years-old and running for another six-year term, Sen. Richard Lugar, the Great Lakes' and the U.S. Senate’s most senior Republican, is in the fight of his political life in a GOP primary election that will be held in just two weeks on May 8. Lugar is facing his most serious electoral challenge in decades from Indiana state Treasurer Richard Mourdock (R).
A spotlight was put on Lugar’s plight by a recent McLaughlin Associates poll conducted for the Mourdock campaign (4/16-17; 400 IN likely Republican primary voters) that shows that the 36-year incumbent, Lugar, has fallen into a one-point deficit in his battle for the GOP nomination. According to the data, Mourdock leads the six-term Housier State's senior Senator 42-41% among the small sample of likely May 8th GOP primary voters.
The significance of the poll is not so much the ‘ballot test’ result, but in the trends leading to that finding. Since McLaughlin's last poll (January 18-19), the race has swung a net 13 points in Mourdock's favor (Mourdock up 6; Lugar down 7), despite him being outspent 3:1. Buttressing the argument that the trend line favors Mourdock a poll released on April 5 and conducted for the Indianapolis Star indicated that the race had closed to a roughly seven point margin. Lugar's recent, heavy, negative paid media purchase against Mourdock is a further indication that the Senator's own survey research suggests the same trend.
Potentially more troubling for Sen. Lugar in what is likely to be a relatively low turnout primary election - mostly because the Republican presidential campaign is virtually decided - is the split among polling respondents who have an opinion of both candidates. Within this sample cell, Mourdock has a commanding 55-36% lead.
What likely plays to Lugar's advantage, however, is the open primary law. In Indiana, as in many states where voters do not register by political party, a qualified individual requests the party ballot for which he or she wants to vote. Therefore, people beyond the group of self-identified Republicans are eligible to participate. Since the Democrats do not have many contested primary races, individuals who normally vote Democratic or consider themselves non-affiliated could conceivably participate in this election. Part of the Lugar campaign strategy is to swell the GOP turnout rolls with voters from these two groups since the Senator's appeal to them is relatively strong while Mourdock's is expected to be weak.
During the last federal election cycle in 2010, Great Lakes voters turned out four of the seven senators facing re-election and dozens of members of the U.S. House. Lugar’s re-election may tell us much about what type of election year 2012 will be.