The political world absorbed a chilling message Wednesday from the fall of Washington icon Sen. Richard Lugar: Rabid partisanship is popular, especially in Republican primaries, and cutting deals with political opponents is not. Lugar’s defeat will have ripple effects nationally in this year’s elections and in the Senate, where he’s served since 1977.
Anyone looking for common ground in a deeply divided Congress is likely to be more intimidated now. This month alone, lawmakers have failed to reach accords on matters that usually find consensus: highway construction, student-loan interest rates and help for victims of domestic violence.
Tuesday’s primary defeat of Indiana’s Lugar probably will encourage other Republican candidates to wonder whether they should emulate the no-compromise style of Indiana State Treasurer Richard Mourdock, who trounced the senator.
Lugar was part of an already-vanishing breed: the cool, cerebral legislative craftsman who values bipartisan compromise. Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, is retiring this year, and she cited the increasingly ugly partisanship in Congress as her motive. Democratic moderate Kent Conrad of North Dakota, the chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, also is retiring, as is Connecticut independent Sen. Joe Lieberman, another cross-the-aisle dealmaker. Veteran Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, who used to strike compromises with Democrats, spent the past two years showily avoiding such deals after tea party opposition toppled his Utah colleague Robert Bennett, a conservative Republican, in 2010. Hatch easily survived a challenge from the right at his state convention last month, but he still faces a primary June 26.
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However, some analysts warned against reading too much into Lugar’s defeat, which was rooted in more than ideology. He was widely perceived as out of touch with the folks back home – more comfortable discussing foreign affairs than constituent concerns – and he was hit by an avalanche of negative ads from well-financed advocacy groups.
Modern history is full of similar examples of Capitol veterans perceived as losing touch with their constituents. Like Lugar, Arkansas Sen. J. William Fulbright was renowned as a thoughtful broker of global issues as the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, but the 30-year Senate veteran lost a 1974 Democratic primary to Gov. Dale Bumpers by a big margin. New York Republican Sen. Jacob Javits was a revered Washington power broker who lost in 1980 to Republican Alfonse D’Amato, who became known as “Senator Pothole” for his keen attention to parochial issues rather than grand national policy.
Lugar, 80, was unusually vulnerable. He was briefly ruled ineligible to vote in his home state of Indiana earlier this year because he hasn’t owned a home there since 1977. He was easily painted as a Washington insider at a time when Congress’ approval ratings remain stuck under 15 percent.
“Lugar had been in office a long time, and voters figured he wasn’t as close to the people as he ought to be,” said John Pitney, a professor of American politics at Claremont McKenna College in California.
In politics, though, success often is emulated, and Murdock’s take-no-prisoners style was the talk of Capitol Hill on Wednesday. He told Breitbart News last month that, “By trying to make deals with the Democrats, we’ve only lost ground. . . . I want people to know we have an option; it’s called conservatism and yeah, it works. So bring it, bring it. I’m ready; we’re ready.”
Lugar’s Washington allies were upset. “The alarm bells have been sounded,” Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., said in a Senate floor speech extolling Lugar.
They’ve been sounding for years. Since 2009, most big legislation has passed on straight party-line votes. President Barack Obama’s three signature congressional achievements – overhauling the nation’s health care system, revamping Wall Street regulation and pumping hundreds of billions of stimulus dollars into the economy – were approved with virtually no Republican support.
Efforts to raise the nation’s debt ceiling, usually a routine matter, resulted in an ugly battle last year that led to a drop in the government’s credit rating. That’s likely to flare again later this year. Also looming is another effort to renew the George W. Bush-era tax cuts, which are set to expire at year’s end, and unless Congress acts, automatic federal spending cuts are set to go into effect next year. So far, neither party has shown much willingness to compromise.
Mourdock’s 22-point victory, greater than anticipated, energized conservatives, who view it as another successful chapter in their epic struggle for the Republican Party’s soul. An array of conservative powerhouses backed Mourdock, including 2008 vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin, no-new-tax guru Grover Norquist, the National Rifle Association and the Indiana Right to Life political arm.
“The size of the win is remarkable, especially for someone with Lugar’s long record and lack of previous vulnerability,” said Burdett Loomis, a congressional expert at the University of Kansas. “I do think that Sen. Lugar’s overall style just screamed ‘old school’ and heightened the contrast to Mourdock.”
The most worried Republican on Wednesday may have been presumptive presidential nominee Mitt Romney. Never a favorite of conservatives, he’s been trying hard to demonstrate that he’s one of them. But to win the general election, he’s going to have to reach to the middle, too. A new George Washington University/Politico poll this week found Romney with a 10 percentage-point lead among independents.
“If I’m Romney, I’m not happy about this result, which illustrates how far the center point of the Republican Party has moved to the right,” Loomis said.
There’s one note of hope for Romney and compromisers:
Mourdock won a GOP primary in May. The November general election will draw a larger turnout, and Mourdock will face a popular Democratic centrist, Indiana U.S. Rep. Joe Donnelly.
In 2010, seven Republican challengers who boasted tea party support either beat GOP incumbents and establishment figures or drove them out of the Senate race. But in the general election, tea party candidates lost in Nevada, Colorado and Delaware, states where more mainstream Republicans would have been favored.
Mourdock’s victory eventually could be written off as similar to primary giant-killings of the past that November voters ultimately rejected. But for now, Loomis said, Lugar’s loss is another reminder of “the impatience of the tea party Republicans.”