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Lugar Defeated in Indiana GOP Senate Primary

Lugar Defeated in Indiana GOP Senate Primary

By Caitlin Huey-Burns - May 8, 2012


After 3 1/2 decades in the U.S. Senate, Hoosier Republican Dick Lugar is now a lame duck.

As expected, the 80-year-old lawmaker lost his bid for a seventh term to state Treasurer and Tea Party favorite Richard Mourdock in Indiana's Republican primary Tuesday.

With more than three-quarters of the vote counted, the winner had attracted 60 percent of the vote to Lugar's 39 percent in a race that showed the power and influence of outside groups, the liabilities now associated with having a long congressional career, and a Republican electorate trending more conservatively in Indiana.

The contest, though, was always about Lugar: Observers noted than any enthusiasm surrounding this race involved sending the incumbent into retirement.

The 60-year-old Mourdock will face three-term Democratic Rep. Joe Donnelly in November. The fiscally conservative Republican has been elected to state-wide office twice, and is favored to win the seat, especially as the state is trending red in the presidential election.

But Democrats insist they see a pickup opportunity, and are casting him as a candidate who is too far outside the mainstream and out of touch with independent voters. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee released a memo Tuesday afternoon describing Mourdock as “this cycle’s Ken Buck,” referring to the Colorado Republican candidate embraced by the Tea Party but who lost to incumbent Sen. Michael Bennet in 2010. 

In his concession speech, Lugar was not conciliatory toward the victor. "He has pledged his support to groups whose prime mission is to cleanse the Republican party of those who stray from orthodoxy as they see it," he said of Mourdock. "This is not conducive to problem solving and governance.”

He went on to bemoan the polarized state of politics in Washington, including within his own party: "I don't remember a time when so many topics have become politically unmentionable in one party or the other. Republicans cannot admit to any nuance in policy on climate change. Republican members are now expected to take pledges against any tax increases.” 

Lugar's loss was no surprise: His political obituary was written days before voters cast their ballots. An independent poll released Friday found him trailing Mourdock by 10 points, picking up just 38 percent of the support.

Analysts say Lugar was a bit rusty when it came to campaigning -- an irony, given that this was his seventh Senate race. But this one was also the incumbent’s first competitive contest. Since 1982, Lugar has received at least 67 percent of the vote.

In his first election, in 1976, he defeated a Democratic incumbent. But soon after claiming that victory, Lugar moved from Indiana and settled with his family in the Washington, D.C., suburbs of Northern Virginia. His residency hadn’t been much of an issue in past campaigns, but this cycle it fueled critics painting the incumbent as out of touch with Hoosier interests and more at home with politicians in Washington. To make matters worse, the senator spent substantial time and energy disputing an elections commission ruling that he was ineligible to vote in the state he represented. Lugar won the challenge, but the ensuing headlines and fallout continued to dog him.

Lugar built a reputation on Capitol Hill as a policy wonk, twice serving as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He was known the reach across the aisle. In 1992, he and then-Sen. Sam Nunn, a Democrat, co-authored a nuclear nonproliferation program. But for all his experience, observers say Lugar had trouble connecting with home state  voter concerns about jobs and the economy.

He tried to bridge this gap in his final campaign ad, and Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels made a television pitch in support of Lugar. Those efforts, though, were a little too late.

Mourdock used Lugar’s moderate streak against him. The campaign went after the senator’s support for TARP and the DREAM Act, and his votes for President Obama’s two Supreme Court justice nominees, for example. FreedomWorks, the National Rifle Association, and other conservative groups rallied behind Mourdock and spent millions campaigning against his opponent. Club for Growth spent $1.5 million on television and radio ads, and recently ran a spot accusing Lugar of “clinging to power.”

Club for Growth President Chris Chocola lauded Lugar's service, and "his vast knowledge of foreign affairs," in a statement following Tuesday night's results, but said Mourdock's win delivers an important a point to the GOP. "Richard Mourdock defeated a legend in Indiana politics because of his hard work, focus on the issues, and his conservative message," Chocola said. "Richard Mourdock’s victory truly sends a message to the liberals in the Republican Party: voters are rejecting the policies that led to record debt and diminished economic freedom, and they will continue to be rejected in elections throughout America."

Lugar had support from super PACs, and the candidate's campaign spent roughly $2.4 million on the race, using ads to paint Mourdock as beholden to outside interest groups.

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s super PAC sent out a mailer encouraging Democrats and independents to vote for Lugar in the state's open primary. But, in a telling sign of where the race was headed, American Action Network, a group backing the incumbent, pulled its ads in the last week to “let the race play out.”

President Obama called Lugar a "friend and former colleague" and commended his bipartisan efforts in a statement issued by the White House Tuesday night. "My administration’s efforts to secure the world’s most dangerous weapons has been based on the work that Senator Lugar began, as well as the bipartisan cooperation we forged during my first overseas trip as Senator to Russia, Ukraine and Azerbaijan," Obama said. "Senator Lugar comes from a tradition of strong, bipartisan leadership on national security that helped us prevail in the Cold War and sustain American leadership ever since. 

Caitlin Huey-Burns is a congressional reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at chueyburns@realclearpolitics.com. Follow her on Twitter @CHueyBurnsRCP.

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