After months of hard fought campaigning and millions of dollars in negative attack ads, Tuesday marked the end of the distinguished career of Indiana's longest-serving U.S. senator ever, Richard Lugar. This shocking turn of events was unthinkable for almost all of Lugar's 36-year career in the U.S. Senate. Just six years ago in 2006, the Indiana Democratic Party didn't even field a candidate to challenge Lugar. What a difference six years can make.
So what happened?
Dick Lugar's primary defeat in Indiana happened because of a combination of events and can serve as a lesson to incumbents in both parties. For starters, Lugar is partially to blame because he lost touch with the grassroots of the Indiana Republican Party. After years of being ignored by Lugar at Lincoln Day dinners and local Republican party events, 67 of the 92 Republican county chairs endorsed Tea Party candidate Richard Mourdock. Lugar has always been granted what scholar Richard Fenno called "leeway" from the voters to focus on national and international issues. Over the decades that leeway eroded away and Lugar did not recognize it.
Along with losing touch with his Republican base back home, Lugar made efforts in Washington to reach across the aisle and work with Democrats. Lugar worked with then-Senator Obama to pass the Lugar-Obama Proliferation and Threat Reduction Initiative, served as honorary co-chair of the Obama-Biden inauguration and supported liberal Supreme Court nominees Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagen. Those admirable qualities put him on the radar screen of some very powerful conservative groups.
The forces that aligned against Lugar are impressive and politically deadly -- Club For Growth, Tea Party Express, Freedom Works, Citizens United, the National Rifle Association (NRA) and Indiana Right to Life. They recruited Mourdock to challenge Lugar. They helped him raise millions of dollars, made major third party expenditures on his behalf, and organized conservatives throughout Indiana. In all, outside groups poured over $2 million into Mourdock's effort to oust Lugar.
Mourdock's victory will stand as Exhibit A for 2012 on the growing power of outside interest groups. How will that impact the way he governs should Mourdock win this fall? Only time will tell but Mourdock's stated position that he hopes to build a Republican majority so big that no one has to seek compromise with Democrats is music to the ears of his powerful conservative supporters.
So what could Lugar have done differently?
Lugar should have spent more time back in Indiana, highlighted his conservative credentials (which are many) and recognized the powerful conservative forces that were gathering in the distance. Perhaps he was too busy doing his job as a senator, traveling around the globe learning and mastering foreign policy, and doing what he thought was best for the nation. Perhaps at the end of the day Lugar is too nice a person, too decent of a statesman to survive in the negative, nasty world that American politics has become.
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