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Posted at 1:30 PM ET, 02/21/2011

Indiana GOP lines up behind Lugar's primary challenger

By Aaron Blake

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Indiana state Treasurer Richard Mourdock will launch his primary challenge to Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) on Tuesday with the support of a majority of both the state's 92 Republican county chairmen and its state party executive committee, he told the Fix in a recent interview.

"I feel bad that he's going to be humiliated by this list," Mourdock said.

Mourdock added that he believes Gov. Mitch Daniels (R) and Rep. Mike Pence (R), the party's two leading figures in the Hoosier State, are going to stay neutral in the primary -- though Daniels, who was Lugar's campaign manager three different times, has already committed to voting for the senator.

That such a large contingent of the party establishment should come out against or withhold support from an incumbent senator is highly unusual and reflects the difficult path ahead for Lugar in advance of the May 8, 2012, primary fight. It also suggests there is a clear path to victory for Mourdock.

Mourdock will officially launch his campaign with a six-city tour.

He said that running for Senate is not necessarily anything that he wanted to do or planned to do, but that he felt he needed to. "I'm the best-poised person in Indiana to do it right now," Mourdock said. "I kind of wish somebody else was, but I'm it."

In launching his campaign, Mourdock becomes the latest conservative primary candidate to run against a Republican incumbent. Last cycle, three incumbent senators lost renomination; two of them lost to tea party-backed candidates.

But Mourdock is clear on one thing: he is not running as a tea party candidate. While he welcomes the support of tea party groups and says he expects them to coalesce around his campaign, he recognizes the limitations of being defined as a tea party candidate.

"Mr. Lugar will try to paint me that way, because he's speaking very demeaningly about the tea party right now," Mourdock said. "I think he's doing it that way to set it up and say, 'Mourdock is some wild-eyed extremist.'"

Mourdock is not the only candidate being mentioned as a challenger to Lugar, but he said he expects to be the only major opponent when all is said and done.

He said a number of candidates who have been mentioned -- state Rep. Jackie Walorski and 2010 Senate candidate Don Bates among them -- have told him they will not run. He has also been talking to state Sen. Mike Delph, who hasn't ruled out a run.

But Mourdock said he and Delph have spoken and reached an understanding that they won't split the anti-Lugar vote. After all, it's happened before; when they both ran for secretary of state at the 2002 state party convention, they split the conservative vote and allowed a more moderate candidate -- now-Rep. Todd Rokita -- to win the nomination.

"I said, 'Remember Mike, there were four people running, and we split the vote. We know how this movie ends.' And he agreed," Mourdock said. "I think that will shake out sooner rather than later."

Mourdock, as a statewide officeholder, brings significant experience to the race, and he won a second term as treasurer in November with more than 62 percent of the vote. But the knock on him is that he's run for office many times -- and hasn't always won, including losses for Congress and secretary of state.

Mourdock notes that he comes from Democratic-leaning Vanderburgh County (home to Evansville and former Rep. Brad Ellsworth) and that he won two terms on the county commission there.

He also recognizes that this race is on a new scale, and he estimates he'll need $3 million for the primary, money he expects to be able to raise due to the national interest in the race.

That national interest has a lot to do with Lugar's recent voting record, including supporting the START Treaty, opposing an earmark ban and voting for both of President Obama's nominees to the Supreme Court.

A poll conducted for Mourdock in early January showed plenty of Indiana Republicans are willing to vote for another candidate, and as we've discussed before, Lugar has been doing little to give them a reason to keep supporting him.

Mourdock expects to get a big boost from his announcement Tuesday.

"The headline isn't going to be, 'Tea party candidate to take on Dick Lugar;' it's going to be, 'GOP grassroots dumps Lugar,'" Mourdock said. "There is tremendous unrest and tremendous dissatisfaction, and that's what got me in this race."

By Aaron Blake  | February 21, 2011; 1:30 PM ET
Categories:  Senate  
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