Bitter Republicans get no small satisfaction in openly criticizing Sen. John McCain's 2008 presidential campaign. But party strategists privately point to another McCain bid—his 2010 reelection effort—as the textbook example of how even someone with a moderate reputation can beat back a challenge from the right. For a few senators seeking another term this year, McCain's blueprint is their best path toward another six years.
Two years ago, McCain was coming off a stinging defeat at President Obama's hands. Members of the tea party movement were asserting themselves as the conservative standard-bearers of the national Republican Party and causing headaches for any member whom they considered moderate. In Arizona, those voters were never among McCain's biggest fans, and they sensed the opportunity to deny him the party's nomination. They rallied around former Rep. J.D. Hayworth, a popular radio host who ran to McCain's right, particularly on immigration.
McCain's team knew he would face only token Democratic opposition in the fall, and they took Hayworth's challenge seriously; the senator spent more than $20 million on advertising, beginning with radio ads on Hayworth's own station, in an ultimately successful effort to portray himself as sufficiently conservative and Hayworth as an unacceptable alternative.
McCain's success stands in stark contrast to then-Rep. Michael Castle, the Delaware Republican, and Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska. Both faced tea party-inspired challengers far to the right, and both were expected to cruise to their respective nominations. Castle never went negative on Christine O'Donnell, and Murkowski only belatedly hit Joe Miller. Both lost their primaries (although Murkowski, running as an independent, won a write-in bid in November).
This year, the tea party set, or even those who want to replace incumbents with more-conservative ideologues, have had limited success in finding GOP moderates to go after. Only Sens. Richard Lugar and Orrin Hatch have drawn serious challenges from the right. Hatch has aggressively worked to build a favorable electorate; Utah's bizarre primary rules call for a convention, and Hatch's team is busily trying to elect delegates who will back him, a process that will resolve itself in initial caucuses next month.
But Lugar has had more trouble with state Treasurer Richard Mourdock—and most of his problems, like McCain's, are self-inflicted. Where McCain cultivated an image as a moderate standing against the archconservatives in his home state, Lugar has fashioned himself as a statesman with a long record of success in Washington. That has allowed Mourdock to hoist Lugar on his own petard, casting the incumbent as out of touch with his home state.
Mourdock, though, doesn't have the cash to compete with Lugar; at the end of the year, the incumbent had more than $4 million in the bank, compared with just $360,000 for the challenger. But Lugar is giving Mourdock all the free media he needs: What has hurt Lugar the most is consistent questions over his residency and whether he is even eligible to run for his own seat.
Lugar acknowledges that he sold his home in Indianapolis years ago, but he relies on a legal opinion from the 1980s that permits him to live outside of Indiana if he is serving the state (Lugar didn't help himself when he compared service in the Senate with service in the military). And although Mourdock's odds of knocking Lugar off the ballot are long, the issue is creeping into local media. The senator has fielded several questions about where he sleeps when he's in Indiana; this week, he admitted to a reporter, on camera, that he had slept in the very hotel where he was standing.
A Lugar spokesman said that instead of hurting the incumbent, the issue has overwhelmed Mourdock. “It’s something that I think is swamping the Mourdock campaign, because that’s been their whole focus and effort,” David Willkie said. “The focus of the campaign is jobs, the economy, and governmental spending.”
Internal surveys that Lugar's team has released show him leading Mourdock by a wide margin. A survey conducted Feb. 8-9 for Lugar gave him a 55 percent to 30 percent lead. And Lugar’s team has worked the race hard; Willkie said they’ve already make more than 800,000 calls to Indiana Republicans.
But most Republican strategists, including those rooting for Lugar to win the primary, don't believe that his margin is as big as the polls advertise, and they say that he is still vulnerable if he’s not careful. Lugar is now up with his first negative advertisement, accusing Mourdock of mudslinging—an acknowledgement that Mourdock is closing on him, or at least that Lugar needs to use his $4 million war chest in the primary, before he even makes it to the general election.
The initial advertisement taking aim at Mourdock won't have a huge impact on the electorate; it's running at just over 100 gross ratings points per week, according to Mourdock-backing Republicans who track Indiana's ad market (meaning that the average Hoosier will see the ad just once in a given week). And Mourdock's advertisements have been small buys on Fox News—an efficient use of a limited budget, but small nonetheless.
Both sides are likely to ramp up their spending in the 11 weeks remaining before Indiana's May 8 primary, and Mourdock will probably get help from the Club for Growth and FreedomWorks, two big-spending outside groups that back his bid to unseat Lugar.
But if two months from now, Lugar is still answering questions about where he lays his head, it will be a sign that he hasn't been able to convince Indiana Republicans that he deserves a seventh term. The lesson from McCain's successful 2010 campaign is that an incumbent must keep careful control of the conversation; in Indiana, the conversation is out of Lugar's hands.