Republican foreign policy elder statesman Sen. Richard Lugar, 80, first elected to the Senate in 1976, was defeated in the Indiana primary Tuesday by state Treasurer Richard Mourdock, who was backed by conservatives ranging from the National Rifle Association to local Tea Party activists to the Washington-based fiscal conservative group the Club for Growth.
Mourdock scored a landslide victory, winning more than 60 percent of the vote with almost all precincts reporting.
Looking toward the November election, National Republican Senatorial Committee chairman Sen. John Cornyn of Texas said two weeks ago that “it will probably make it more of a contest if Sen. Lugar is not the nominee, but I’m confident we’ll hold the seat.”
In a statement Tuesday night once the outcome was clear, Cornyn said Mourdock “has the NRSC’s full support and we are committed to helping elect him as Indiana’s next U.S. Senator in November.”
Conceding defeat, Lugar told his supporters, “I hope that Richard Mourdock prevails in November so he can contribute to that Republican majority in the Senate.”
Related: Lugar’s goodbye
But Lugar also said that unless Mourdock “modifies his approach, he will achieve little as a legislator.”
Within minutes of Mourdock’s victory, leading Senate conservative Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina — who’d stayed neutral in the primary — sent a message to supporters of his Senate Conservatives Fund, urging them to donate money to Mourdock.
“A year ago political pundits said Richard Mourdock couldn’t win this race. They said he couldn’t build the support needed to overcome the establishment machine. They were wrong,” DeMint said.
Now, DeMint said, “he needs our support now more than ever. Mourdock is virtually defenseless after spending everything he had to win the primary election. The Democrats are going to come at him very hard in the next few weeks and work to brand him as an extremist. We need to act quickly to replenish Mourdock’s war chest so he can get the truth out about his record and vision for the future of this country.”
As DeMint noted, Democrats quickly issued statements alleging that Mourdock is “extreme.”
Guy Cecil, the executive director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee said Mourdock was “a right-wing Tea Party ideologue who questioned the constitutionality of Medicare and Social Security, says there should be more partisanship and less compromise in Washington, and actually compared himself to Rosa Parks.”
The Democratic candidate in November will be Rep. Joe Donnelly. Although both Democratic and Republican strategists see Donnelly as having a better chance to beat Mourdock than he would have had against Lugar, it remains to be seen whether Donnelly can raise enough money to make it a truly competitive race – given that Democratic donors must also fund much more competitive Senate contests in Ohio, Montana, Missouri, Wisconsin, Virginia and New Mexico.
In his statement Tuesday night, Donnelly wooed Lugar’s supporters, thanking Lugar for “his many years of service to our great state and to our nation. He and I share a history of working across the aisle. I agree with the senator that we accomplish more when we work together. Senator Lugar and I stood together to rescue the American auto industry, and our state has benefitted greatly from his efforts in so many areas.”
In 2009, Mourdock became famous as Indiana state treasurer for opposing the auto industry bailout and the forced write-downs for Chrysler bond holders. Indiana is home to Chrysler plants in Kokomo, Ind.
Related: First Thoughts: Five reasons Lugar likely loses
Lugar, along with Utah’s Orrin Hatch, is the longest-serving Republican in the Senate. But like GOP senators Lisa Murkowski in Alaska, Bob Bennett in Utah, and Arlen Specter in Pennsylvania in 2010, Lugar found himself challenged by those in his party who decided he was not conservative enough on federal spending.
And Republican insiders in Washington said Lugar seemed to underestimate the seriousness of the challenge that Mourdock posed.
Mourdock criticized Lugar for voting for Obama’s two Supreme Court nominees and for his vote to end a filibuster on the Democratic-sponsored DREAM Act which many conservatives see as merely a form of amnesty for illegal immigrants.
But if one looked at Lugar’s voting record, he usually sided with solid conservatives. For example he voted against the 1994 crime bill which included the original Violence Against Women Act and he voted “no” again two weeks ago on re-authorizing money for programs under VAWA.
Mourdock’s attacks on Lugar didn’t always give voters the complete story. For example Mourdock assailed Lugar for supporting an increase in the gasoline tax but didn’t mention that Lugar favored offsetting that increase with a cut in payroll tax so that taxpayers would see no net tax increase.
Mourdock’s campaign ads tarred Lugar with his friendship with President Barack Obama. In 2005 Obama accompanied Lugar on a trip to Russia, Ukraine, and Azerbaijan to inspect weapons sites.
Obama told a Council on Foreign Relations gathering in Washington after they returned that “If anybody has ever accompanied Sen. Lugar on a (foreign) trip, you know that he is a rock star wherever he goes,” but Lugar’s foreign policy focus wasn’t the asset at home that it was in Washington, D.C.
For his foes, the fact that Lugar did not maintain an Indiana residence came to symbolize his disconnection from the state he had represented in the Senate since Jimmy Carter was president. Democrats mocked him in February for telling Indiana reporters that he was unsure what address was on his Indiana driver’s license.
This is proof that the Tea Party is alive and well and still operating to bring our country back to its conservative values. No question, there will be a battle royal in November for the Senate. But this Tea Party candidate won in Indiana regardless of the GOP elite predicting otherwise and the super PACs money going to Senator Lugar.
We’re out there working at our localities, quietly, getting out the vote and supporting our candidates. Do not think we’re through. You’d be very wrong.