Indiana Sen. Richard Lugar's allies have largely disappeared from the television airwaves just days before Tuesday's primary, a sign that even friends of the six-term Republican think he's in trouble and could lose to tea party-backed challenger Richard Mourdock.
Mourdock's backers, meanwhile, have stepped up their criticism, casting Lugar, 80, as too moderate for the Republican-leaning state and out of touch after 36 years in Washington. Total ad spending intended to benefit Mourdock was pushing toward $2.3 million and could top that in the final week.
"What's happened to Dick Lugar?" says the narrator of the latest ad by the Club for Growth. "He was a respected statesman, a leader. Then he became part of the problem, joining the liberals in voting for record debt, bailouts and tax hikes." The conservative national group has spent $1.4 million while Mourdock has spent $790,000.
Lugar, who was elected in 1976 and has forged a Senate career dominated by foreign policy, is one of the most vulnerable incumbents at a time of strong anti-establishment sentiment in some parts of the country. Questions about his residency and time spent in the state have dogged him throughout the primary. Even the endorsement of popular Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels may not spare him from defeat by Mourdock, the state treasurer.
Public polling shows a competitive race, but internal surveys taken by Republicans indicate Mourdock may have a slight edge.
In a troubling development for Lugar, the American Action Network, an organization that helps incumbents get re-elected, decided to cancel $200,000 in airtime, or roughly one-third of what it planned to spend against Mourdock—and to help Lugar.
Spokesman Dan Conston would say only that the group decided to "let the race play out."
Lugar and his allies had spent $3.5 million for TV advertising since the beginning of the year trying to persuade Republicans to stick with him. In all, at least $5.8 million—a significant amount for a Senate primary race in Indiana—has been spent on TV ads in the race, according to figures made available to The Associated Press by Republicans who track ad spending.
If he loses Tuesday, Lugar will become the latest Republican senator—though the first this year—to fall victim to a split within the GOP between the more pragmatic establishment and the conservative tea party factions. In 2010, tea party-backed Republicans unseated Utah Sen. Bob Bennett, and, in several states like Colorado and Delaware, overtook Senate candidates who were recruited or preferred by party leaders in Washington. The contentious primaries illustrated the fight for the direction of the Republican Party in the post-George W. Bush era.
For most of the past year, Lugar has been dogged in a flood of TV ads by questions about his residency, including the Indianapolis home he sold in 1977. Ads also have portrayed him as a Washington insider.
"We've tried to point out the differences in policies, where I'm more of a conservative than he is," Mourdock said Monday at a Fort Wayne fundraiser. "I think to the conservative base of the Republican Party that's been the right message."
The attacks have taken a toll.
"It's uncontrollable, and most of the ad wars are being conducted by groups or forces totally outside of Indiana, who really are using us as a playground to enforce their own clout," Lugar said Monday after the same GOP fundraiser, criticizing outside groups that are spending money in the race even though some are working to help him win a seventh term.
It's not just the ads that have hurt Lugar. He's been unable to settle on a single message, at least on the air, to persuade voters to give him six more years.
The senator gambled big by supporting the Keystone XL pipeline, rejected by President Barack Obama. Lugar spent a half million dollars in January on ads that promoted his backing of the pipeline and the jobs supporters say it will create.
In one ad, Lugar said, "The president has failed, the president's decision on the pipeline is a disaster for jobs."
But his pitch was drowned out by a battle between Indiana's Statehouse Republicans and labor unions, and Super Bowl festivities through the start of February.
With his poll numbers in bad shape, it wasn't long before Lugar shifted to a series of attack ads against Mourdock, accusing him of missing board meetings, collecting extra tax breaks and failing to conform to the conservative orthodoxy the party's base demands.
"Richard Mourdock has a record of failure," Lugar's most recent critical ad said.
Lugar now hopes a little help from Daniels will push him to victory. Daniels is featured in TV ads running in the final weeks.
Former Rep. Mark Souder, a Republican who represented northeastern Indiana from 1994 to 2010 and is neutral in the race, is among those who say Lugar erred by not taking Mourdock seriously as a threat last year and by waiting too long to begin fighting a serious campaign.