After more than 35 years in the Senate, Richard G. Lugarof Indiana was ousted Tuesday by a tea party challenger in a Republican primary that showed how hard it is for a veteran lawmaker known for his ability to compromise to win reelection in the current political environment.
The 80-year-old senator, a leading voice for his party on foreign policy, was pummeled for weeks by Republican rival Richard Mourdock for his breaches with conservative orthodoxy. Among them: Lugar’s support of citizenship for some illegal immigrants and his votes to confirm President Obama’s Supreme Court nominees, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.
Lugar’s loss marks a triumph for the tea party in a campaign season otherwise shaping up as less favorable to a conservative insurgency than the 2010 election that swept many of the movement’s candidates into office and fueled a Republican takeover of the House.
Conceding defeat, Lugar told supporters Tuesday night that he hoped Mourdock would win November’s general election. But in a written statement lamenting the decline of bipartisanship, Lugar warned that Mourdock would achieve little in the Senate if he failed to seek common ground with Democrats.
“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,” Lugar said.
The Republican Party, he warned, risks being relegated to minority status if it continues to discourage its representatives from holding independent views or engaging in constructive compromise.
“Parties don’t succeed for long if they stop appealing to voters who may disagree with them on some issues,” he said.
For his part, Mourdock told supporters that Republicans in Indiana were sending a message that they want the party’s senators “to take a more conservative track.”
“It’s about ideas,” he said. “It’s about the direction of the Republican Party” and of the country.
Lugar’s lopsided defeat affirms the downside of Senate longevity at a time when voters, in Indiana as elsewhere, are in a surly mood over prolonged economic hardship.
A fixture of the Republican establishment in Washington since the 1970s, Lugar lives in McLean, Va., but was recently forced to explain why his voter registration listed his residence as an Indianapolis house that he no longer owned.
Lugar was also poorly prepared to fight for survival.
“Lugar hasn’t had a race in decades,” said Jennifer Duffy, senior editor of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. “Not years. Decades.”
Indiana was one of four states holding elections Tuesday. In Wisconsin, voters picked Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett as the Democrat to challenge Gov. Scott Walker next month in a recall spurred by the Republican incumbent’s fight with organized labor. Walker defeated Barrett in the 2010 governor’s race.
In presidential primaries, Mitt Romney coasted to victory in Indiana, North Carolina and West Virginia. Even with most of the combined 107 delegates at stake Tuesday, Romney remained short of the 1,144 needed to clinch the nomination, but is likely to hit that milestone this month.
For Lugar, the challenge mounted by Mourdock came as a rude surprise. A former chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Lugar is one of the nation’s most prominent advocates of arms control treaties. With former Sen. Sam Nunn, a Democrat, Lugar helped set up a program to secure and dismantle nuclear weapons in Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and other nations that were once part of the Soviet Union.
When he ran for president in 1996, Lugar stressed nuclear security. He quit the race after finishing seventh in the Iowa caucuses and fifth in the New Hampshire primary.
By and large, Lugar’s voting record has been conservative, but he has often worked with Democrats — a major liability this year in his reelection campaign. In 2005, Lugar and Obama, then a freshman senator, traveled together to Russia, Ukraine and Azerbaijan to inspect nuclear facilities. He and Obama later cosponsored a measure expanding the Lugar-Nunn program to deactivate weapons and keep terrorists from acquiring them.
In a statement released Tuesday night by the White House, Obama praised Lugar for working with Democrats to get things done.
“Sen. 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,” Obama said.
Another Democrat, Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts, called Lugar’s defeat a tragedy.
“This is a tough period in American politics, but I’d like to think that we’ll again see a United States Senate where Dick Lugar’s brand of thoughtful, mature and bipartisan work is respected and rewarded,” Kerry said.
In his campaign, Mourdock, 60, branded Lugar “Obama’s favorite Republican.”
A two-term Indiana state treasurer, Mourdock attacked Lugar for supporting a 2006 bill that offered a path to legalization for undocumented workers. He also faulted Lugar for backing a more recent measure that would have provided citizenship to some children of illegal immigrants if they served in the military or attended college.
Mourdock’s campaign won the support of FreedomWorks, Washington’s main tea party group, along with former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota and anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform.
But one of the biggest blows to Lugar was a major advertising campaign run against him by the Club for Growth, a Washington organization that seeks to shrink government.
In his own campaign ads, Mourdock portrayed Lugar as a Washington insider who had grown out of touch with Indiana.
“When Dick Lugar moved to Washington, he left behind more than his house,” an announcer said in a Mourdock TV ad. “He left behind his conservative Hoosier values.”
In November, Mourdock’s Democratic opponent will be Joe Donnelly, a congressman who would have faced a tougher challenger in Lugar.
For Republicans, said Stuart Rothenberg, editor of the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report, “I think it’s harder to hold the seat with Mourdock, but I think they will hold the seat.”
Republicans are hoping to win control of the Senate in November by maintaining control of the party’s 47 seats and gaining four more.