In November 2010, Sen. Richard Lugar’s (R) campaign released an internal poll showing him to be the most popular politician in Indiana. Within 18 months, Lugar would lose a primary to state Treasurer Richard Mourdock. What happened?
Many attribute Lugar’s loss to the Tea Party’s opposition to his moderate policy stances. But as recently as January, Lugar still appeared to be a lock for reelection. Instead, his loss should be chalked up to the ability of opposition research and communications to swing an election when thoroughly pursued. And, conversely, it demonstrates the inability of a campaign, which had not seen a serious challenge in decades, to adapt to changing times.
For Lugar, his downfall was the revelation that he no longer lives in the state of Indiana. In fact, he hasn’t for 35 years. And while this issue had been raised before, as far back as his first re-election in 1982, voter sentiment has changed. The Lugar campaign was unprepared to address the issue and appropriately counter a sustained attack.
The charge started quietly enough with a late-January Daily Caller article noting Lugar’s permanent residence in Washington, D.C. By mid-February, American Bridge, the Indiana Democratic Party, and the Mourdock campaign were all producing web ads, research documents and press releases drawing attention back in Indiana to the story. As local press began to cover it, Lugar’s campaign compounded the attack by offering up the head-scratching defense of comparing his absence from Indiana to that of our men and women in the armed services stationed overseas.
The story snowballed as our organization uncovered that Lugar spent more time overseas (and thus away from his constituents) than any other member of Congress, funded in part by taxpayer dollars. Lugar then faced the humiliation of being ruled ineligible to vote from his old address (the one he hadn’t lived in for 35 years) by the local election board.
With renewed attention focused on Lugar’s residency, he was left vulnerable to a final blow — the deeper inquiry which uncovered that his living arrangement had led him to improperly use over $14,000 in taxpayer funds to pay for hotel stays in Indianapolis.
In most campaigns, a narrative is formed and the communications and research help build and sustain the message. Not in this case. One charge and the inability to effectively counter it resulted in a narrative that persuaded Indiana voters that Dick Lugar was no longer the right person to serve the state of Indiana.
Rodell Mollineau is the president of American Bridge 21st Century, a progressive Super PAC. Prior to joining American Bridge, Mollineau spent four years in the office of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (Nev.) as staff director of the Senate Democratic Communications Center.