Richard Lugar: A Moderate Republican Senator Falls in Indiana

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James Brosher / South Bend Tribune / AP

Sen. Richard Lugar, of Indiana speaks to reporters at Koontz-Wagner Electric, a manufacturer of controls for the Keystone XL pipeline, April 30, 2012, in South Bend, Ind.

It’s a cliche to say that Washington moderates are a dying breed, but that doesn’t make it any less true. Voters sent a pack of Blue Dogs to the proverbial farm in 2010. Rockefeller Republicans have been going the way of, well, Nelson Rockefeller. And on Tuesday, Indiana Republican Richard Lugar, a 36-year elder of the Senate’s centrist tribe, was cut down by the Tea Party tomahawk of state treasurer Richard Mourdock.

In losing his primary, Lugar, a singular Establishment voice for foreign policy in the Senate, joined the likes of Utah’s Bob Bennett and Delaware’s Mike Castle on conservatives’ recent kill list. Indiana’s longest-serving senator, Lugar, 80, outspent his opponent and the proliferation of third-party groups that targeted the incumbent, but lost in a 20-point rout Tuesday night after a bloody campaign that focused on Lugar’s decades-long residency in Washington, his compromising (in all senses of the word) voting history, and his relationship with President Obama. Mourdock will face Democrat Joe Donnelly in November.

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A former school board commissioner and mayor of Indianapolis, Lugar won his Senate seat in 1976. After moving to Washington, he turned his focus to global affairs, serving two stints as chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, once in the 1980s under Reagan and again under George W. Bush 20 years later. But it was the ’90s that shaped Lugar’s legacy: Along with Georgia Democrat Sam Nunn, Lugar championed legislation that led to the Cooperative Threat Reduction Program, which saw thousands of nuclear warheads and hundreds of intercontinental missiles dismantled after the fall of the Soviet Union. Their efforts earned the two men a Nobel Peace Prize nomination in 2000. And it was the same interest in non-proliferation that led Lugar to partner with then-Senator Barack Obama on the issue in 2006.

During his presidential campaign two years later, Obama took the nuclear football and ran with it, often invoking his relationship with Lugar in debates, ads and interviews. And despite the Republican’s unequivocal endorsement of John McCain, he didn’t shy away from the attention. “I’m pleased we had the association Senator Obama describes,” Lugar said at the time. After Obama’s inauguration, Lugar opposed the new President’s major domestic initiatives, but the two remained largely allied on foreign policy and Lugar was key in securing Senate ratification for the new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty with Russia in 2010.

That by itself might have been enough to bring a primary challenge down on Lugar, who remarkably had not faced a competitive race since 1982. But the senior senator’s problems ran much deeper than a bipartisan bromance with Obama. He backed the unpopular bank bailout in 2008. Unlike Orrin Hatch, another old Senate hand facing the specter of a conservative reaper this year, Lugar voted for the universally dissatisfactory debt ceiling deal in 2011 and was reluctant to reach out to the Tea Party or adopt its harshest indictments of the status quo. The residency issue—Lugar’s voter registration was temporarily revoked when it was revealed that his listed address belonged to a house he no longer lived in—dogged his campaign. And well-organized conservatives fielded a capable challenger in Mourdock.

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But there are many in Washington who will miss Lugar. “You don’t have giants the way we used to,” says Norman Ornstein, a congressional scholar at the American Enterprise Institute who on Tuesday described Lugar as “a victim to polarization” whose loss is “a real blow to American foreign policy and bipartisanship in American foreign policy.”

If Obama should win a second term, he will surely feel the sting. Foreign policy and immigration reform, two areas where Lugar was a rare White House ally in the GOP Senate caucus, may loom large in the next Congress. “It becomes a tougher battle for [Obama],” says Ornstein, who thinks others could potentially step into Lugar’s role, but few with the same gravitas. “Lugar had universal respect and enormous credibility. He was viewed by Obama as a mentor.”

That sentiment was on display Tuesday night in a statement issued by the White House. “While Dick and I didn’t always agree on everything, I found during my time in the Senate that he was often willing to reach across the aisle and get things done.” the President said. “He has served his constituents and his country well, and I wish him all the best in his future endeavors.”

Obama’s statement actually mirrored part of Lugar’s own message to his opponent after conceding defeat. “If Mr. Mourdock is elected, I want him to be a good senator,” Lugar said. “He and I share many positions, but his 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.”

That philosophy is just no longer desirable to a Republican party and an Indiana constituency that have changed a great deal since they sent Lugar off to Washington four decades ago. “In a party that will become increasingly torn between its neoconservative wing on the one hand and its Tea Party wing on the other,” Foreign Policy wrote on the day of his defeat, “Lugar had become a party of one.” His fall was not the first of its kind, but Lugar just might be the last of his.

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