Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) isn’t the first mainstream Republican to be driven from office by a right-wing primary challenger, but his primary defeat last night is arguably the most shocking – and says the most about the radicalization of today’s Republican Party.
When Utah Sen. Robert Bennett was rejected by his party, he could at least blame the process. When Florida Gov. Charlie Crist was discarded, we could point to his relative moderation by contemporary GOP standards.
With Dick Lugar, it’s … different.
Lugar is a giant – a veritable legend – of Indiana politics, having been a popular mayor of Indianapolis and a successful senator who never faced a serious challenge before this year. On Capitol Hill, Lugar developed a reputation as a consistent conservative, generally on the right on nearly every issue (lifetime American Conservative Union rating: 77%), but who nevertheless conducted himself with class and dignity – a senator who enjoyed universal respect, especially on international affairs, where his stature is largely unrivaled.
The senator has been a quiet, understated leader. He lost by 20 points.
Lugar had been encouraged to do as Orrin Hatch had done – abandon sensible positions, stop working with anyone with even slightly different positions, and pander shamelessly to the most extreme contingencies within his party. But Lugar didn’t want to become a right-wing caricature, because after so many years of public service, he didn’t feel like he had to. Hoosiers knew him and trusted him; his party and his state wouldn’t cast him aside easily.
Did I mention he lost by 20 points?
Former Sen. John Danforth (R-Mo.) said a while back, “If Dick Lugar, having served five terms in the U.S. Senate and being the most respected person in the Senate and the leading authority on foreign policy, is seriously challenged by anybody in the Republican Party, we have gone so far overboard that we are beyond redemption.”
Well, guess what. Lugar not only faced a serious challenger, he was also humiliated by his own party – which suggests the Republican Party probably is “beyond redemption.” The purity campaign, intended to drive independent thought and even hints of moderation from the GOP altogether, continues, and as of last night in Indiana, it’s working.
Who beat him? State Treasurer Richard Mourdock, who, naturally, challenged Lugar from the right. Mourdock is a favorite of right-wing groups like Club for Growth, and has staked out extreme positions, including his recent boast that bipartisanship is “wrong” and that he wouldn’t intend to work with Democrats on any issue.
GOP Hoosiers swooned, preferring Mourdock’s hard-line inflexibility to Lugar’s statesmanship. As Dana Milbank recently said of this primary:
On one side is a man who has made it his life’s work to build a cross-aisle consensus for keeping nuclear weapons out of the hands of terrorists and rogue states. On the other side is a man who mocks his opponent for such efforts and who talks more about fighting Democrats than fighting America’s enemies.
For years Dick Lugar has been the leading Senate Republican on foreign policy, shaping post-Cold War strategy, securing sanctions to end South African apartheid and bringing democracy to the Philippines, among other things. His signature achievement, drafted with Democrat Sam Nunn, was the 1992 Nunn-Lugar Act, which has disarmed thousands of Soviet nuclear warheads once aimed at the United States.
Enter Richard Mourdock, a tea party hothead attempting to defeat Lugar in the GOP primary. A cornerstone of his effort to oust Lugar is the six-term senator’s bad habit of bipartisanship – never mind that Lugar’s bipartisanship was in the service of protecting millions of Americans from nuclear, chemical and biological terrorism.
As Lugar himself said in a statement last night, “He and I share many positions, but his embrace of an unrelenting partisan mindset is irreconcilable with my philosophy of governance and my experience of what brings results for Hoosiers in the Senate. In effect, what he has promised in this campaign is reflexive votes for a rejectionist orthodoxy and rigid opposition to the actions and proposals of the other party. His answer to the inevitable roadblocks he will encounter in Congress is merely to campaign for more Republicans who embrace the same partisan outlook. 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.”
As for what happens now, Mourdock will face Rep. Joe Donnelly (D), a Blue Dog Democrat, who, all of a sudden, has a shot at winning a U.S. Senate seat. Opinions vary on Donnelly’s chances, but one thing is for sure: had Lugar won yesterday, he’d be a lock to win re-election statewide. With Mourdock’s primary success, what was an easy race for the GOP has become a more competitive contest.
As for what happens to the “beyond redemption” Republican Party, every incumbent on Capitol Hill has received the right-wing threat anew: toe a far-right line and refuse to compromise or prepare to be replaced. Full stop. The radicalized party won’t quit until it’s purged every hint of independence from its ranks.
The Mann/Ornstein thesis tells us the extremism that’s come to define the contemporary GOP is principally responsible for the breakdown of American governance. Yesterday’s primary sends an unmistakable signal: Republicans only intend to make matters worse.