Indiana Sen. Richard Lugar (R), Senate stalwart known for a kind of moderate Republicanism well out favor in the modern GOP, lost his primary bid against insurgent state Treasurer Richard Mourdock Tuesday night.
The embarrassing defeat for Lugar caps off a 35-year career in the Senate and puts another nail in the coffin of centrist Republican political thought in government, which has been in deep decline since the Tea Party revolution of 2010 that put an increasingly ultra-conservative brand of Republican in Washington.
The loss was not a surprise. Lugar’s re-election bid was marred with embarrassing episodes surrounding his residency (he moved away from Indiana years ago, and his opponents were able to use that against him.) There was widespread criticism of the way he ran his campaign and squandered decades of goodwill in the Hoosier State.
Mourdock’s win, on the other hand, is more surprising. Though he’s a two-time statewide elected official, his campaign against Lugar did not get off to a great start. It kicked into high gear when outside conservative groups like the Club For Growth started spending big on Mourdock’s behalf, turning him in to the latest Tea Party hero out to enforce ideological discipline on the GOP.
Democrats were eager to help Mourdock along. They attacked Lugar, helping push the residency status hits and generally making life as hard for the veteran Republican senator as possible. Mourdock — who is vastly more conservative than Lugar — they left alone.
The reason is simple: Democrats see Mourdock as a Republican candidate of the Christine O’Donnell-Sharron Angle-Ken Buck school. Those three losing Republican Senate nominees (from Delaware, Nevada and Colorado, respectively) came to represent Tea Party over-reach in 2010, when the movement helped nominate candidates so unappealing they lost Senate races the GOP should have won.
So now that Lugar is done, Democrats are turning their full fire on Mourdock, painting him as a dangerous ideological extremist. They say centrists and independents who have been pulling the lever for Lugar for decades will be open to the Democratic nominee, Rep. Joe Donnelly, once they take a real look at Mourdock.
Republicans, who freaked out when Angle and O’Donnell rose — doing their best to shut down the tea partiers in the primary phase — do not feel the same way about Mourdock. It’s worth noting that a good number of the conservative candidates Democrats thought were too far to the right to win the general (Kentucky Republican Sen. Rand Paul is just one example) won in the end and are now in the House and Senate.
The establishment GOP seems confident that Mourdock is no O’Donnell. Democrats insist that he is. That puts Indiana on the list of races to watch, and the list of races likely to get some resources from the national parties. Early polling shows the Mourdock-Donnelly race to be wide open. Expect the negative attacks to come early and often, as Democrats try to paint Mourdock as a tool of the far right and the Republicans attempt to cast Donnelly as nothing but an Obama rubberstamp.