Inability to Adapt Could Cost Lugar Indiana Republican Primary Win

Opinion

   on May 07 2012 3:37 PM
Lugar and Kerry walk out together after a news conference after the Senate ratified the START nuclear arms reduction treaty at the US Capitol in Washington
US Senator Richard Lugar (R-IN) (C) and Senator John Kerry (D-MA) (R) walk out together after a news conference after the Senate ratified the START nuclear arms reduction treaty at the US Capitol in Washington, December 22, 2010. REUTERS

The blame game has already begun regarding Sen. Richard Lugar's anticipated loss in Tuesday's Indiana Republican primary.  The chattering class's prime suspect:  those right-wing, Tea Party nuts!  But they've overlooked Lugar's basic problem -- his inability to adapt to the public's expectations of their legislators in the 21st century.

Let's turn back the clock to 1977 for a moment, when Lugar first entered the Senate and sold his Indiana house. Then, having a nominal political home was unremarkable.  Bob Dole, the longtime senator from Kansas, lived in a suburban Virginia house in the '60s and then at a condo in the Watergate in D.C. (where he still resides today). The outgoing president, Gerald Ford, while a congressman from Michigan, also raised his family at a suburban Virginia home. And there were many more. 

So Lugar probably never gave it a second thought when his Indiana residence became nothing more than an address on a driver's license. He might even have been advised by colleagues like Dole to hand over the state stuff to his Indiana staff director and concentrate on building a reputation in D.C.

But traveling was different back then, too. These were the days before airline deregulation, making travel between Indianapolis and D.C. a bigger deal in 1977 than it is today. Voters didn't expect to see their senator very often, if he showed up at local events only during an election year, that was understandable.

Things began changing with the 1994 congressional elections, when Republicans took back the House after 40 years of Democrat control. One of the new members' themes was keeping closer to their constituents; some pointedly did not rent (much less buy) a residence in D.C. They slept in their offices on weeknights and flew home for the weekends and recess periods.

Incidentally, a bellwether of this change was Rick Santorum, who criticized a seven-term House incumbent (from Pittsburgh) for living in suburban Washington -- and went on to defeat him in 1990.

In 2006, then-Sen. Santorum was a bellwether again, when he, in turn, was criticized for having his family home in Virginia, while maintaining an official residence in an empty house near Pittsburgh. Santorum lost his Senate seat that year to a Democrat. That was a warning signal of the perils of having a fake home state address.

Elizabeth Dole was one such who failed to heed the Santorum lesson. In 2001, she switched her official residence from D.C. to her mother's address in North Carolina, so she could run for the U.S. Senate. With the help of outgoing Sen. Jesse Helms and the North Carolina GOP establishment, she won election in 2002, despite not having lived in the state since 1959. But she lost her re-election bid in 2008 amid questions about her claim to North Carolina residency. Her last-moment eight-day bus tour of the state just wasn't enough.

Robert Bennett of Utah also didn't get the message. A veteran of the Nixon administration, he was elected in 1992 to the Senate seat his father had once held. But Bennett had decent Beehive State roots at one time; back in the '80s he ran a very successful Utah business and made millions. Then he got too comfortable during his two terms in D.C., and eventually was defeated for his re-election nomination at the 2010 Utah Republican state convention. Although Mike Lee, a fellow Republican and Bennett's successor, also spent many years in D.C., he wisely aligned himself with Utah's burgeoning Tea Party movement -- a trend that Bennett refused to acknowledge.

On the other hand, Orrin Hatch, Lee's Senate colleague from Utah, seems to be getting the message. Hatch, who was first elected to the Senate in 1976 (the same year as Lugar), saw what happened to Bennett and took corrective action. Hatch did some serious outreach to the Tea Party, hired an operative who had worked on the convention campaign to defeat Bennett, and executed a major grassroots operation. While he failed by a whisker to lock down his party's nomination at this year's convention (32 votes short of reaching the required 60 percent), he is strongly favored to win the June 26 primary. Having Mitt Romney's endorsement certainly helps.

Lugar, however, seems stuck in the '70s -- as evidenced by his recent painful realization that he hasn't actually lived in the state for decades, and, more important, that his nonresidence matters to voters. Elizabeth Dole, at least, went through the motions of being a North Carolina resident when she bought her mother's house in 2001 (although it wasn't much help to her in 2008).

Lugar uses the address of the house he sold in 1977 as his official residence, but seems baffled by Hoosier expectations that he should do more than occasionally bunk down in an Indiana hotel. Perhaps he's also learning that an office wall full of inside-the-Beltway testimonial plaques won't make up for those numerous no-shows at Indiana high school graduations.

If Lugar had learned anything from the proud tradition of Indiana basketball, it should have been that it's essential to pivot in tight situations. Being good at dribbling is not enough to win.

Joanne Butler is a graduate of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University and a former professional Republican staff member at the U.S. House of Ways and Means Committee.

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