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Lugar Loss Could Provide Pickup Opportunity for Democrats

The latest veteran lawmaker to be the subject of a vigorous primary challenge is the 80-year-old Senator Richard G. Lugar of Indiana, who is being challenged for the Republican nomination by State Treasurer Richard Mourdock.

Mr. Lugar has won every race he has run since 1967, when he was elected mayor of Indianapolis, save for a close call in which he narrowly failed to defeat the longtime Democratic incumbent senator Birch Bayh in 1974. Mr. Lugar was elected to the Senate two years later by defeating another Democratic incumbent, Vance Hartke, in 1976. Mr. Lugar was instrumental in passing a 1992 law that helped to secure the former Soviet Union’s nuclear arsenal, and his genteel center-right politics are a good fit for Indiana, where he has normally been re-elected easily.

But senators and other elected officials who once seemed untouchable have become fair game for primary challenges in the last several years, and Mr. Lugar has a formidable problem on his hands with Mr. Mourdock. The latest poll in the race, from Wenzel Strategies for the Citizens United Political Victory Fund, which supports Mr. Mourdock, put Mr. Mourdock ahead 44 to 39 percent.

Ordinarily, the rule is that a poll commissioned by a partisan group exaggerates their candidate’s standing by an average of about 6 points — sometimes more and sometimes less. By that measure, then, the Wenzel Strategies poll could be read as showing the race as more of a tossup. The last nonpartisan poll of the race, from Howey/DePauw, put Mr. Lugar 7 points ahead, although it is now about a month old.

However, momentum is a considerable factor in primaries, especially when one candidate begins with a deficit in name recognition and his numbers improve as he becomes better known to voters. Recent polls had put Mr. Mourdock’s name recognition at only about 60 to 70 percent, which suggests he has some upside in his numbers as his name recognition continues to increase in advance of the May 8 primary.

Meanwhile, key Republican officials are certainly acting like it is Mr. Mourdock’s race to lose. A “super PAC” that had been supporting Mr. Lugar, the American Action Network, has pulled out of the race. Mr. Mourdock received the endorsement of Sarah Palin, meanwhile, while Mitt Romney is conspicuously remaining neutral in the race.

Thus, Mr. Lugar has probably become a modest underdog to retain his seat. He had $1.4 million in cash on hand as of April 18, a decent amount that should give him some chances, but not a true firewall in a state that has several different media markets, including some that cross state boundaries, and with Mr. Mourdock’s help from outside groups.

If Mr. Lugar loses, it should increase Democrats’ odds of picking up the Senate seat in November. Democrats have a fairly good candidate in Indiana in the form of United States Representative Joe Donnelly, who represents the Second Congressional District and who narrowly retained his seat in a very tough environment for Democrats nationally in 2010. The Second District, which includes South Bend and Michigan City, is slightly Republican-leaning relative to the country as a whole but slightly Democratic-leaning relative to the rest of Indiana.

Still, Indiana remains a red state, despite Barack Obama having narrowly carried it in 2008. Mr. Obama’s victory came in part because his campaign put a great deal of effort into winning the state, relying on volunteers and media exposure in the Chicago market, while John McCain’s campaign put almost none in.

Nor is Mr. Mourdock in the Christine O’Donnell category of candidates. As the state treasurer, he is roughly as well-credentialed as Mr. Donnelly.

Mr. Mourdock has some standard Tea Party lines in his platform, enough to be problematic in more urban parts of the state like Indianapolis and northwest Indiana. Still, he is not all that far outside of Indiana’s political mainstream — not obviously more or less so than Mr. Donnelly, who voted for Mr. Obama’s health care bill, although he has bucked his party on other issues like gun-ownership rights and cap-and-trade.

All of that points to a close race, and the lone poll featuring a Mourdock-Donnelly matchup showed the race to be an exact tie, although with both candidates lacking name recognition.

I’d probably give a slight edge to Mr. Mourdock on the basis of Indiana’s overall partisan orientation. Mr. Obama’s win in 2008, while it made for a more impressive electoral map for Mr. Obama, may have been somewhat transient. Democrats did poorly in Indiana in the 2010 midterms, with another United States Representative, Brad Ellsworth, failing to mount a competitive race against a middling Republican candidate in former Senator Dan Coats. Mr. Donnelly could be in a tough spot as it regards Mr. Obama, who may want to compete in Indiana again and whose turnout operation could be key to getting Democratic voters to the polls, but who now has only middling approval ratings there.

Nevertheless, this would undoubtedly complicate Republicans’ electoral calculus. Although Democrats still face considerable difficulty in retaining the Senate, their offensive prospects have gradually become more promising over the course of the cycle, with clear pickup opportunities in Massachusetts and Nevada and some prospects in Arizona. Democrats might also hope to have a de facto pickup in Maine, where the independent Angus King is the clear favorite and they have essentially conceded the race to him, although Mr. King has yet to commit to caucusing with either party should he win.

If Mr. Lugar hangs on to win, he might be somewhat more vulnerable than in past races as some issues that Mr. Mourdock has raised, like Mr. Lugar’s residency status in Indiana, could potentially be picked up upon by Mr. Donnelly. Still, while it might be tempting to draw a parallel to the former Democratic Senator Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas, who barely survived a primary challenge and then was defeated badly in the general election, I don’t think the precedent really holds. The partisan dynamics of Arkansas worked against Mrs. Lincoln, while Indiana’s work in favor of Mr. Lugar, who also retains considerable appeal to independent voters.

A poll of the Lugar-Donnelly matchup gave Mr. Lugar 50 percent of the vote to Mr. Donnelly’s 29 percent. It’s early enough that such a deficit is not literally insurmountable, but Mr. Donnelly would need to run a pitch-perfect campaign and would probably also need Mr. Lugar to make some further tactical or strategic errors.

Nate Silver is the founder and editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.