By BRIAN HOWEY
The Indiana presidential primary has fizzled. When Rick Santorum pulled out of the race in Gettysburg on Tuesday, it left Mitt Romney barreling toward the Republican presidential nomination with only a couple of gnats — Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul — buzzing around his head.
The down ballot implications in the May 8 Indiana primary are potentially vast. Indiana Treasurer Richard Mourdock, in a gut fight with U.S. Sen. Dick Lugar, immediately saw it as an advantage, telling Politico, “I think the timing couldn’t be better. I think it definitely helps us. The real grassroots politics, the ones that motivate people, were the ones that were out there more for Santorum. They’re still going to be motivated, they’re still going to get out and vote, but I don’t know that Romney’s folks will. I think it probably keeps some of the fair weather voters home who might be more inclined to go with name ID, who don’t really tune into the Senate race as much as they do a presidential race.”
The Lugar campaign always saw the presidential overlay as an exercise in punditry with little value. “There is way too much speculation that it would have an impact,” said Lugar spokesman Andy Fisher. “The presidential race is less of an issue on our race.”
Fisher said that Mourdock’s assessment is “a best case scenario that a lot of people who would have turned out for Santorum would turn out for Richard Mourdock.”
Mourdock and his allies have long talked about a suppressed turnout as an element that would favor the challenger. The Lugar campaign has based its entire premise on contacting its GOP voters and expanding the field by bringing in Republican-leaning independents. “There are clearly independent voters who will vote in the Republican primary,” Fisher explained. “They are there and will be helpful to us.” In addition to the more than 1 million phone calls the Lugar campaign has made, there is a micro targeting program that, Fisher said, is the most sophisticated of any of the senator’s campaigns.
In the 2008 Hillary Clinton/Barack Obama race in Indiana, HPI’s analysis in the May 8, 2008 edition reported that CNN had projected 10 percent of the Democratic primary were Republican crossovers, and 23 percent were independents.
Hendricks County Republican Chairman Mike O’Brien sees the Santorum withdrawal as a wash. Conventional wisdom is that a vigorous presidential primary would draw independent and even some Democratic votes that might be more inclined to vote for Lugar. The Santorum candidacy and its potential voting pool, O’Brien said, were more aligned with the Mourdock campaign. Without Santorum stumping the state and igniting that evangelical conservatism, the more likelihood is the Mourdock voting base will be smaller. “The Santorum energy would have been strong for Mourdock,” O’Brien said.
Howard County Republican Chair Craig Dunn, who endorsed Mourdock early but has expressed dismay over how the challenger has run his campaign, explained, “I could probably argue it either way. Without a presidential race to boost turnout, turnout will be suppressed. Your poll showed the race knotted at 38/38 with those who voted in 2008 and 2010.”
Dunn added, “Our most conservative and engaged Republicans generally vote in primaries. If a 36-year Senator can’t break 42 percent 30 days before a primary, he has got big problems. The wild card will be Governor Daniels. How much will he become involved?”
State Sen. Mike Delph has crisscrossed the state in recent weeks and has had his pulse on the conservative movement. “Rick Santorum was the conservative candidate and conservatives would have turned out and voted for him,” the Carmel Republican said. “Other conservatives would have benefited from that increased enthusiasm. My thinking was that an energized conservative base at the presidential level would have benefited Richard Mourdock in his senatorial race. That’s my connecting of the dots. I don’t understand the logic of where his thinking is.”
Delph said he was “only speaking for myself” and acknowledged that the end of the Santorum candidacy had “taken the wind away from my sails when Rick made the courageous and personal decision to withdraw out of love for his family. I still believe he had the best shot of defeating President Obama. I was very excited about his candidacy. I believe Rick Santorum would have won the state of Indiana. As a conservative, I’m disappointed. I’m not as excited about the primary as I was at the beginning of the day.”
The Howey/DePauw Indiana Battleground Poll released last week had Santorum leading Romney 27-26 percent. Paul and Gingrich were tied at 6 percent and 35 percent were undecided.
“There are a lot of conservatives in Indiana who are less than enthusiastic about our options in the May primary,” Delph said. “I think that helps Lugar more than Mourdock.”
Much more important than guessing how the Santorum withdrawal will bear on the Senate race is the execution of turning out supporters. “The most important timeline in any campaign is the last 72 hours,” Delph explained. “That’s where you separate the men from the boys. Who can turn out the base vote? The Santorum deal puts all the pressure on the Mourdock organization. If he has a paper tiger organization, that will show through on May 8.”
The columnist publishes at www.howeypolitics.com and on Twitter at @hwypol. Contact him at email@example.com.