After losing his bid for a seventh Senate term by a 22 percent margin, Indiana Republican Dick Lugar began to wind down his 36-year Senate career by saying the usual concession speech fluff.
During a brisk seven minutes, he congratulated his victorious opponent, Richard Mourdock, on a hard-fought primary race and added that he hoped Mourdock would contribute to a new Republican majority in the Senate. Lugar then kissed his wife on both cheeks, hugged the rest of his family, waved both his hands to the cheering crowd, and exited stage right.
Lugar may have summoned a contrite spirit for the cameras that May 8 night, but he did not utter his true parting words on stage. His staff soon distributed a three-page, nearly 1,500-word treatise in which Lugar warned that Mourdock’s “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.” Lugar lambasted Mourdock for his “rejectionist orthodoxy and rigid opposition” and predicted that Mourdock would “achieve little as a legislator” unless he changed his ways. The soon-to-be ex-senator, first elected in 1976, did not face forced retirement quietly.
Democrats, hoping to steal this safe Republican seat, pounced. Using Lugar’s diatribe as a script, Rep. Joe Donnelly, the Democratic candidate for the seat, portrays himself as a bipartisan legislator. Donnelly filmed political ads showing him standing in the middle of a road while a driver impersonating Mourdock shouts, “It’s my way or the highway,” as he swerves past.
“We need less reckless partisanship and more Hoosier common sense,” said Donnelly, who often calls Lugar an “American hero.”
The tactic to drive a wedge between disaffected Lugar supporters and other Republicans has turned this election into a surprising battle. Lugar’s own words have laid the groundwork for a race that could help determine which party controls the U.S. Senate come next January.
Republicans need a net gain of four seats to win control of the Senate. Earlier this year that prospect seemed like a good bet: Of the 33 Senate seats up for reelection Democrats hold 23. That includes several in red states like Nebraska, Montana, North Dakota, and Missouri that are predicted to vote Republican in this year’s presidential election. Democrats also have to defend seven open seats where the incumbent is retiring, as well as seats in presidential swing states such as Florida, Virginia, and Ohio.
But a lot of potholes have appeared in that supposed clear path to a Republican Senate majority. Susan Collins’ unexpected retirement has jeopardized the Republican-held Senate seat she holds in Maine, where a Democratic-leaning independent, popular former Gov. Angus King, now leads.
And in solidly Republican Missouri, Rep. Todd Akin’s infamous comments about female bodies having mechanisms to prevent pregnancy from “legitimate rape” turned him from a frontrunner to an underdog in his bid to unseat Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill. Akin resisted demands from within his own party to leave the race, but he could not prevent Republican groups from removing from the state their crucial campaign cash.
The race for the Senate is not getting as much attention as the presidential race, but conservatives agree it is just as important in stopping the growth of government.
“Does anyone think Harry Reid will ever send a bill to the president’s desk to repeal Obamacare?” asked Sen. Jim DeMint, referring to the Democratic Senate leader from Nevada. “The answer is no, and that’s why I am focused on sending strong conservatives to the Senate who will make that a reality.”
That’s also why the suddenly contentious race for an Indiana Senate seat held by Republicans for 53 of the last 71 years has conservatives worried. Senate Republican leaders like Rob Portman of Ohio and John Cornyn of Texas are stumping in Indiana. “Please, please send us Richard Mourdock,” Republican vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan pleaded at a recent Indianapolis fundraiser.
Tea Party and grassroots conservatives heralded Mourdock’s resounding primary victory over Lugar this spring in much the same way they cheered underdog Ted Cruz’s surprise Republican Senate primary win over an establishment candidate in Texas this summer.
Mourdock is a 60-year–old marathon-running geologist turned state treasurer who has made three unsuccessful earlier attempts to run for Congress. But this time his campaign strategy of going right after Lugar’s moderate record struck a chord with voters. Indiana went for Obama by a mere percentage point in 2008, but since then the state has become more conservative, defunding Planned Parenthood and supporting a right-to-work law. Mitt Romney likely will carry Indiana in November. Signs for the presidential race are much more prominent after you cross the state line into the battleground state of Michigan.
Mourdock pinged Lugar for being too cozy with Democrats and supporting too much of President Obama’s agenda, including votes for Obama’s two Supreme Court picks. Other long-term GOP senators like Utah’s Orrin Hatch survived intraparty challenges by adjusting course after correctly reading the rightward direction of the political winds within the party. Lugar continued on a moderate path, voting for bailouts and reforms touted by Obama. It doomed him when he stood before Indiana Republican voters, who went for Mourdock 61 percent to 39 percent.
“I have a mindset that says bipartisanship ought to consist of Democrats coming to the Republican point of view,” Mourdock said the day after banishing Lugar.
But now the coal company executive who likes to race cars on dirt tracks may be facing a backlash among the state’s “Lugar Republicans” that mirrors the growing tension nationwide between establishment and conservative Republicans.
“Lugar built up a lot of goodwill over his long career,” says Timothy Wesco, a Republican state lawmaker from Elkhart, Ind. “Moderate Democrats and independents in Lugar’s camp have a strong sense of loyalty, and those are the ones who will decide the election.”
This fall Mourdock has toned down his rhetoric while arguing that a vote for Donnelly is a vote for President Obama and his policies. He is trying to avoid the plight two years ago of Republicans Joe Miller in Alaska, Christine O’Donnell in Delaware, and Sharron Angle in Nevada: All three Tea Party–backed candidates registered upset wins in primaries only to lose in general elections.
But not all Tea Party conservatives suffered general election defeats. Tea Party favorites now hold Senate seats from Utah, Kentucky, Florida, and Wisconsin—and Cruz from Texas is set to join this group of Tea Party senators. A recent Associated Press poll showed that 31 percent of likely voters consider themselves supporters of the Tea Party, suggesting that they will still be a significant voting bloc this November.
But those races did not feature the Lugar factor. This fall, as the race tightened and morphed into a toss-up, Lugar resisted pleas that he get involved. “I have not been a factor in the campaign and I do not intend to do so,” Lugar told a conservative Indiana blogger—but he has been a factor. Some of Lugar’s past supporters are raising money and hosting events for Donnelly, and the National Republican Senatorial Committee has just announced plans to spend $650,000 for Mourdock. That’s a small slice of the $100 million or so that outside conservative groups are projected to spend on Senate races this year, but it’s money that could be used in other battleground states.
Meanwhile, in August—a prime campaigning month—Lugar visited the former Soviet Union, Belgium, and the Netherlands to receive honors and awards. He plans to visit Southeast Asia in October. Back in Indiana Donnelly now enjoys a narrow lead.
Wesco says Lugar’s actions demonstrate his priorities: “He would rather cement his legacy and thank his foreign friends than cement a Republican majority in the U.S. Senate.”
Two years ago Republican Linda McMahon lost her Senate bid by 12 percentage points despite spending $50 million of her own money. Now the former CEO of World Wrestling Entertainment is back and running a much closer race. She has reached out to women voters and is benefitting from the low name recognition of her opponent, Democratic Rep. Chris Murphy. Murphy will get a boost from Obama’s strong lead in the state.
Two years ago, Republican Scott Brown stunned the political world by winning the special election to fill the seat left open by the death of Edward Kennedy. Brown faces the voters again this fall in what is—at $53 million and counting—the nation’s most expensive Senate race. Brown paints his opponent, law professor Elizabeth Warren, as a Harvard elitist, ridiculing the six-figure salary she earns for teaching a few classes. Meanwhile Brown displays to the state’s left-leaning voters an independent streak and willingness to reach across party lines, even highlighting in a recent commercial President Obama thanking him for sponsoring a bill.
In a race featuring two former governors, Republican George Allen is trying to reclaim the Senate seat he lost six years ago to retiring Democrat Jim Webb. Allen’s opponent, Tim Kaine, created an opening by saying during the first debate that he would consider a minimum tax for everyone. Allen is calling Kaine a part-time governor and Obama’s “cheerleader in chief” because of Kaine’s stint as Democratic Party chairman.
Republican state Sen. Deb Fischer owns a ranch and calls herself a citizen legislator. She is running for the seat held by retiring Democrat Ben Nelson, who cast the deciding Senate vote for Obamacare after negotiating the “Cornhusker Kickback”—$100 million in Medicaid funding for his state. “With your help the very same Senate seat that gave us Obamacare will become the Senate seat that repeals it,” Fischer tells voters. Her opponent, the state’s former Democratic Sen. Bob Kerrey, left office in 2000 and moved to New York City.
The Tea Party crowd may not have applauded former four-term Gov. Tommy Thompson’s win in the state’s GOP primary, but he is turning the battle to replace retiring Democratic Sen. Herb Kohl into a tighter race than many predicted. His name recognition and the boost he enjoys from having Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan as the party’s vice presidential nominee are combining to make life difficult for presumed frontrunner Democratic Rep. Tammy Baldwin.
Republicans are hoping to pick up a seat in this conservative-leaning state with a longtime Democratic incumbent, retiring Sen. Kent Conrad. Their candidate, Rick Berg, has already won a statewide race as the state’s only member of the U.S. House. So has Democrat Heidi Heitkamp, former attorney general. Street-level, retail politics will play a huge role in a state with fewer than 700,000 residents. In Berg’s favor: The state has gone Republican in 17 of the last 18 presidential elections.
First-term Democratic Sen. John Tester and Republican challenger Denny Rehberg, a six-term congressman, both have Capitol Hill resumés, but they are emphasizing their Montana roots. Rehberg wears cowboy boots and denim at events. Tester in commercials drives a red combine across a field. Tester is trying to avoid connections to President Obama—but Rehberg keeps calling Obamacare the Obama-Tester Health Care Law.