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Danforth Goes Overboard?

The former senator from Missouri is making much ado about nothing.

5:30 PM, Nov 29, 2010 • By MICHAEL WARREN
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A profile of Indiana Republican senator Richard Lugar from the New York Times this weekend contained this nugget of establishment hysteria:

“If Dick Lugar,” said John C. Danforth, a former Republican senator from Missouri, “having served five terms in the U.S. Senate and being the most respected person in the Senate and the leading authority on foreign policy, is seriously challenged by anybody in the Republican Party, we have gone so far overboard that we are beyond redemption.”

Does Danforth really believe that a primary challenge to an incumbent senator would mean the GOP is “beyond redemption”? Primary challenges are an American political institution, providing party activists the opportunity to promote fresh faces or better ideological representatives.

LBJ was challenged by McCarthy and Kennedy in 1968, Ford (who got to Congress himself by beating an incumbent isolationist Republican in 1948) by Reagan in 1976, Carter by Kennedy in 1980, and Bush by Buchanan in 1992. 

In 2010, three-term Republican senator Bob Bennett came in third in the Utah party's convention ballot, losing his bid for the nomination that eventually went to constitutional lawyer Mike Lee, who won handily in November. Otherwise a conservative, Bennett came under criticism for his vote for TARP as well as his alleged abuse of appropriations earmarks. Is it really such a "damn outrage" that the 77-year-old outgoing senator will be replaced by the 39-year-old conservative Lee?

Let's go further back. In 1946, Republican senator Robert La Follette from Wisconsin, the founder and former member of the Wisconsin Progressive party, was defeated in the primary by Joseph McCarthy, who went on to win the seat and reelection six years later in 1952. Though La Follette later killed himself and McCarthy was humiliatingly censured by his Senate colleagues, a more conservative Republican party lived on.

Danforth has good reason to worry that a successful primary challenger without hope in the general election can hurt the party. He can also defend Dick Lugar’s record during those five terms in the Senate and make the case for giving him a sixth. But to suggest that Lugar is entitled to his seat and that a primary challenge would mean the Republican party has gone overboard? That’s not beyond redemption, but it is a bit much.

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