It's not fair to say Indiana U.S. Sen. Richard Lugar is not a “conservative.” Groups who care about such labels consistently rate him as such. And it's an exaggeration to say that he is somehow no longer a champion of “Hoosier values,” whatever those are.
But Indiana Treasurer Richard Mourdock, in his GOP primary challenge, argues that Lugar has been in Washington too long and crossed the aisle too many times in ways that have helped the federal government grow in size and influence. Lugar and Mourdock represent the war for the soul of the Republican Party – one a business and establishment favorite who is endorsed by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the other a values-driven “movement” conservative backed by the tea party and groups such as Club for Growth.
Putting Mourdock on the ballot for the fall election would be a big test for that movement and whether it could win votes in the general election. The tea party managed to get a large group of firebrand conservatives elected to the House in 2010, but they have been largely co-opted by those already in Washington. So the go-along-and-let-it-grow culture is as strong as ever.
The only question about Mourdock was whether he was a serious person with enough intellectual heft to keep up with the professional pols and the K Street crown they run with. The sole debate with Lugar answered that. He was as knowledgeable about economic issues as a state treasurer should be, and it's obvious he wouldn't have trouble following and influencing the deficit debates. But he more than held his own on foreign policy issues as well – the area that has become Lugar's field of expertise. So Republicans have a legitimate choice and don't need to feel disappointed however the primary turns out.
It would not be a disaster if Lugar won this primary and went on to win in the fall. He has served Indiana honorably and well, and he would be an ally of a President Romney or a foe on many important issues of a President Obama. Likewise, a Mourdock win would assure conservatives they have a strong voice in Washington.
No issue illustrates the difference between the two better than Lugar's votes for Obama's Supreme Court nominees, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, and Mourdock's vows that he would vote against any nominee that was too liberal. Lugar is living by the old-school gentleman's rules that say a president's choice gets approval as long as the candidates is qualified. Mourdock's view is that the other side has quit playing by those rules, so conservatives must as well.
Republican voters have a choice of whom to send to Washington. Do they want the statesman or do a warrior?