INDIANAPOLIS (Reuters) - Senator Richard Lugar appealed to Democrats to cross party lines and vote for him in the Indiana Republican primary on Tuesday, in a last ditch effort to save his 35-year Senate career from a Tea Party backed rival who accuses him of being too supportive of President Barack Obama.
“I’ve asked very candidly for support from all Hoosiers. Not just Republicans, but Democrats and independents. I’m asking for the Republican Party to expand,” Lugar said at his campaign headquarters in Indianapolis on Tuesday, where two dozen volunteers rang a bell each time a voter pledged to vote for the senator.
The defeat of Lugar, one of the most prominent voices on foreign policy in Congress, would be the first loss by a Senate incumbent in the 2012 elections and would mark a major victory for the Tea Party movement to reduce the size of the federal government.
It would also give the Democrats an unexpected opportunity to win a Republican-held seat in November’s elections, and help to stave off a Republican drive to overturn the 53 to 47 Democratic advantage in the U.S. Senate.
“I would not bet any money yet on Lugar losing the primary,” said Marjorie Hershey, a political scientist at the University of Indiana in Bloomington. “But the odds are definitely against him.”
Times have changed for Lugar, 80, who was seen as so invincible during his last re-election bid that Democrats did not field an opponent for him.
But after the arrival of the conservative insurgent Tea Party movement on the U.S. political scene, Lugar’s long track record of bipartisanship and his foreign policy expertise are out of fashion among conservative voters.
His votes for Obama’s Supreme Court appointees Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan riled conservatives, as has the fact that he has not lived in Indiana since 1977.
A confident Mourdock said Lugar had lost touch with Indiana Republicans, who were looking for change.
“They want to see someone who is willing to take a stand to challenge the Obama agenda,” Mourdock said while greeting voters at a church in Avon, a suburb of Indianapolis.
Predicting victory on Tuesday, Mourdock said it would be a very competitive “fun” race in November against Democratic candidate Joe Donnelly, who he said will be hard-pressed to defend his support for Obama’s agenda.
“The Democrats are going to think nationally they have a chance to pick this seat up - they’re wrong - but they are going to try to find a lot of money to throw into his race and we’ll have to raise a lot of money,” Mourdock said.
In Warsaw, a town in northern Indiana, voters who stopped to talk after casting their ballots said they backed Mourdock, who was expected to do well in rural parts of the state.
“I voted for Mourdock because I think Lugar has become more of a liberal,” said John DeWilde, a retiree. “I am not sure Mourdock is the perfect candidate - but he’s not Lugar.”
After close polls for weeks that gave either Lugar or Mourdock a narrow lead, a poll on Friday had Mourdock 10 points ahead.
“I just think it is time for some new blood in Washington,” said Greg Rauen, operations manager at a nonprofit disaster relief agency who said he supported Mourdock’s commitment to cut government spending, his anti-abortion stance and opposition to gun control. “I think it is time to get really serious about change and not just talk about it.”
Lugar bemoaned the amount of money being spent on the race by outsiders, most of it on Mourdock.
“He would not have made headway without millions of dollars pouring in from those outside groups,” Lugar said. “It is a very crass sort of politics and unfortunately this is the only playground they have.”
Super PACs, the unregulated vehicle for a surge in campaign financing this year, poured about $4.6 million into the Indiana Senate primary, according to filings with the Federal Election Commission.
More than $3 million of that total went for ads supporting Mourdock or attacking Lugar, paid for by conservative groups such as Club for Growth, the National Rifle Association and Koch Industries-backed FreedomWorks For America.
After what has been described by observers as a lackluster campaign by the six-term senator, one of Lugar’s backers pulled advertising on his behalf in late April. And as a defeat for one of the few remaining “old guard” Republican senators has begun to look more likely, conservative endorsements for Mourdock have been piling up.
The nods for Mourdock have included former Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin and former presidential candidates Michele Bachmann and Rick Santorum. Most Tea Party groups in Indiana also campaigned for Mourdock.
Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform, whose anti-tax pledge has been signed by most Republicans in Washington and who Democrats blame for much of the gridlock over dealing with the burgeoning national debt, also came out in favor of Mourdock last week because Lugar has not signed the pledge.
Norquist is known for backing winners.
“I don’t think Norquist would show up unless he smelled blood in the water,” said Brian Vargus, a political scientist at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis of Norquist’s Mourdock endorsement.
Activists at Hoosiers for a Conservative Senate, the Tea Party umbrella group backing Mourdock, estimated that between 8,000 and 10,000 grassroots volunteers will work to get conservative voters to the polls to defeat Lugar.
“We have worked very hard to get to this point,” said Monica Boyer, a leader at Hoosiers for a Conservative Senate. “If our prayers are answered we will retire Lugar and send a real conservative to Washington.”
Reporting by Nick Carey and Eric Johnson; Additional reporting by Alina Selyukh; Editing by Greg McCune and Vicki Allen