Cover Story
DIFFERENT MINDSETS: Lugar (left) and Mourdock at a debate in April.
Associated Press/Photo by Darron Cummings
DIFFERENT MINDSETS: Lugar (left) and Mourdock at a debate in April.

Hoosier spite

Politics | Republican chances of taking the Senate aren’t being helped by 36-year Senate veteran Dick Lugar’s grudge against the primary opponent who dared defeat him

Issue: "Race to the finish," Nov. 3, 2012

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.

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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.

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