(CNN) – Dick Lugar, the Senate’s longest-serving Republican, could become the latest political casualty in the struggle between the party’s conservatives and moderates when he faces Richard Mourdock, Indiana’s state treasurer, in a primary Tuesday.
Over 36 years in the Senate, Lugar has built a reputation as a foreign policy expert. But the longtime senator from Indiana has drawn the ire of the tea party and other conservatives who question his convictions.
He’s worked repeatedly with Democrats to seek bipartisan solutions and voted for the 2008 financial bailout and President Barack Obama’s Supreme Court nominees.
The result: one of the nastiest and most expensive congressional races in the nation that Democrats have gleefully called a “tea party war.”
The tea party and other conservatives are supporting Mourdock, who leads Lugar in the most recent poll by 10 percentage points.
Lugar’s campaign has accused Mourdock of running a highly negative campaign funded primarily by special interest groups outside the state. It has also accused Mourdock of sullying Lugar’s record of service and “bullying” Indiana voters.
Mourdock’s campaign has characterized Lugar as an unreliable conservative, pointing to his long voting record and his penchant for working with Democrats. It also has highlighted the fact that Lugar has not lived in Indiana since 1977.
The fight pits moderate Republicans against the more conservative wing of the party. Sen. John McCain of Arizona has endorsed Lugar, while McCain’s 2008 vice presidential running mate, Sarah Palin, has come out for Mourdock.
The winner of the primary will face Democratic Rep. Joe Donnelly in the general election. But the nonpartisan Cook Political Report calls the race safely Republican no matter who wins.
In addition to calling the GOP primary a “tea party war,” the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee in a statement Monday called it “the cannibalization of Dick Lugar in the Indiana GOP Senate primary.”
It has certainly been a war of words. On Friday, Lugar told reporters, “At least somebody ought to say Mr. Mourdock simply is unqualified to handle the complex situations in our world today: foreign policy, or complex economic problems.
“Do not elect an unqualified person to serve in the Senate if you anticipate that you’re serious about jobs and the security of our country and, as a matter of fact, cutting spending and the budget.”
In a final ad released Friday, Mourdock said the incumbent senator “has spent thousands of dollars telling you things about me that he knows are not true.”
“He thinks this campaign’s about me, but it’s not. It’s not about him either. It’s about America’s future,” Mourdock added.
Super PACS have spent $4.6 million to exacerbate the fight.
Outside groups have spent nearly $3 million to support Mourdock. The conservative Club for Growth has spent nearly $1.5 million attacking Lugar in support of Mourdock; tea party sponsor FreedomWorks’ super PAC has spent $646,000, and the National Rifle Association’s NRA of America Political Victory Fund has spent $525,000, according to estimates from the Federal Election Commission and figures from the Campaign Media Analysis Group.
Super PACs supporting Lugar or opposing Mourdock have spent $1.8 million on the race.
Both candidates have been boosted by an influx of outside money into Indiana.
“I believe it’s very important that Hoosiers take back our primary election from the outside world,” Lugar said in a Friday press conference, citing the “millions of dollars being expended by people who are not Hoosiers, who have no specific interest in our candidacy or that of my opponent — but for their own purposes; they’re attempting to show their power and their clout in America.”
Mourdock told CNN, “I don’t make a comment one way or the other about those ads for fear that somebody is going to interpret that as coordinating a campaign.”
But when CNN pressed the candidate about his candidacy benefiting from spending on his behalf, Mourdock said, “Whether or not I’ve benefited from the spending, we’ll find out on May 8. Have I benefited from the fundraising aspects that they have provided? … The answer there is absolutely I have. Because as I have heard (Lugar’s) camp often label these ‘special interest groups,’ there is a special interest group out there: They’re called conservatives. They are nationwide. Certainly the Club for Growth has mobilized conservatives to help our cause. And they have helped us raise money. That’s different than what they spend in the ads we were talking about.”
Meanwhile, both sides are accusing the other of unnecessary nastiness.
“Treasurer Mourdock began a negative campaign over a year ago,” said Andy Fisher, Lugar’s spokesman. “The attacks have been relentless from Mourdock from the beginning of this race last February of 2011. And only in the last few week has Sen. Lugar’s campaign responded with some very legitimate problems in terms of Treasurer Mourdock’s record of performance and trust and qualifications for Senate.”
Mourdock claimed his campaign has “never run a negative ad.”
“On the other hand, Mr. Lugar’s camp has played this like a Washington, D.C.-directed general election campaign of incredible negativity. They’ve put up things, and they are so beyond the pale, as you may know — we’ve asked TV stations to take them down.
“It’s amazing to me that prior to this campaign, Dick Lugar used to brag that he had never run a negative ad. And he is now totally destroyed his own brand in Indiana, and the polls show it.”