The Blog

Morning Jay: Why Mourdock Defeated Lugar

6:00 AM, May 11, 2012 • By JAY COST
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Regarding Dick Lugar’s loss to Richard Murdock, the Old Gray Lady wants you to know one thing: He went down because he was just too gosh-darned moderate and sensible for those insane Tea Party Republicans in Indiana and the dastardly outside groups that targeted him:

Richard G. Lugar, one of the Senate’s longest-serving members, a collegial moderate who personified a gentler political era, was turned out of office on Tuesday, ending a career that had spanned the terms of half a dozen presidents.

Mr. Lugar, a six-term senator from Indiana who had won most of his recent elections with more than 60 percent of the vote, only received 39.4 percent of the vote on Tuesday, losing a hard-fought Republican primary to Richard E. Mourdock, the state treasurer. Mr. Mourdock’s campaign was fueled by Tea Party groups and national conservative organizations that deemed Mr. Lugar too willing to compromise and poured millions of dollars into the campaign to defeat him.

Mr. Lugar, 80, had not faced a challenge from within his own party since his first election to the Senate in 1976, and his defeat seemed to serve as a caution to moderates on both sides of the aisle.

And on and on it goes for two-dozen paragraphs. Poor Senator Lugar. Just too sane for that crazy GOP. Ezra Klein, naturally, sees his loss as the latest signal that the entire GOP has political rabies:

Whether the Republican Party is “the problem” is a subjective judgment. Perhaps you loathe taxes and, in the face of all available evidence, consider global warming a hoax. In that case, the Republican Party is doing exactly what it should be doing. But there is simply no denying that the Republican Party has gone much further right than the Democratic Party has gone left, and that, from policy pledges to primary challenges, it has done much more to discourage its members from compromising than the Democratic Party has.

I love the straw man argument there: Sure, the GOP is a sensible place to be…if you “loathe” taxes and have buried your head in the sand about global warming. In other words, you may not find the GOP so nutty if you are in fact a nut! Sadly for Lugar, he was not a nut, so he lost.

I really have no interest in debating Klein or the Times about what constitutes moderation and what doesn’t. Plenty of Beltway liberals see themselves as centrist-pragmatists, and so they wind up placing conservatives on the extreme right of the political discourse. Arguing with them on this is like pounding sand.

What I find much more interesting is how neither the New York Times nor Klein nor many other liberal pundits picked up on the glaringly obvious problem Lugar faced in Indiana.

Put simply, people around the country are angry with what is going on in Washington. They think politicians are out of touch and that they take voters for granted – and so Lugar had a glaring weakness that a well-positioned challenger could exploit.

Let’s take my contention point-by-point.

1. People are angry. Check out the right track/wrong track numbers from RealClearPolitics.

Now, how about congressional job approval?

Both these charts suggest a bipartisan consensus: People on both sides of the aisle think things in D.C. are seriously screwed up right now.

2. They think politicians are out of touch. Not only do an overwhelmingly majority of Americans think that most members of Congress should not be reelected, they are also increasingly coming to think that about their own members.

Historically, that has been the great paradox in polling about Congress: people hated the institution but loved their own member. Not so much anymore. Here is the Gallup poll from November.

Talk about an epic collapse. And I’d note that some polls – like NBC News/Wall Street Journal and CBS News/New York Times – actually find a plurality of respondents arguing that their members do not deserve reelection. A Rasmussen poll released yesterday found a startling 65 percent of Americans angry at the government.

3. Lugar had glaring weaknesses on this front. Lugar had three huge problems that made him seem out of touch in Indiana.

First, he was fairly well to the left of the Indiana GOP congressional delegation on key issues. In 2007 and 2008 his composite conservative score from National Journal averaged 60 percent, compared to 78 percent for Mark Souder, 76 percent for Steve Buyer, 85 percent for Dan Burton, and 89 percent for Mike Pence. 

To some degree, this validates the point that the Times and Klein were making – but it hardly suggests that Indiana Republicans have gone to the radical fringe. As a point of comparison, imagine putting Nebraska Democrat Ben Nelson in a state like Washington. As a Democrat, he would be too moderate for the liberals that dominate the party there, and would certainly run exactly the same kind of risk Lugar ran.

Second, he was easily tagged as out of touch. As the Evansville Courier & Press noted:

Lugar's real home is in McLean, Va., where he moved after selling his Indianapolis house in 1977. He stays in hotels when he visits Indiana — a simple, succinct fact Mourdock called the turning point.

After a Marion County election board ruled he needed to change voter registration addresses, Lugar's campaign appealed — adding fuel to the fire, and suffering another couple days' worth of coverage.

Given the widespread sense in America that politicians do not care about the folks at home, this was a terrible mistake.

Third, he was too friendly with Obama. Feelings about President Obama are the most polarized of any leader in the postwar era – Democrats love him and Republicans cannot stand him. Lugar had gone out of his way in the past to praise Obama, and that came back to bite him in the you-know-what.

It’s worth pointing out that if the shoe had been on the other foot – if a moderate Democratic incumbent had once praised a polarizing Republican president – the left would have pounced, and I doubt that liberals like Klein would be writing encomiums to the sensible center.

4. A well-positioned challenger could take him on. I am not talking about some out-of-the-woodwork crazy, like the guy who captured 40 percent of the vote in West Virginia’s Democratic presidential primary, of course. However, a person with a statewide reputation in business and/or politics, capable of raising money and putting together a professional organization, could induce Indiana Republicans to take a good, hard look at Lugar.

Murdock fit that description precisely. He has been in local politics since the 1990s, and had won the job of the state treasurer in 2006, a very good year for Democrats in the Hoosier State. And his April report to the Federal Election Commission showed that he had pulled in nearly $2 million in contributions, something that a politician with decades of experience in Indiana politics should be able to do.

So what’s the bottom line? No doubt ideology played a part in this race, but six-term incumbents without any scandals besmirching their names do not lose 60-40 simply because they are too moderate. Instead, it was a combination of problems that above all made Lugar look out of touch with the values of the Hoosier State, and gave an opening for a top contender like Mourdock to take him on.

It is amazing to me that much of the left is still not attuned to the nature of this public discontent. It’s not just their take on Lugar-Mourdock, but their seemingly unshakeable confidence that Obama is a lock for reelection. Increasingly, they’re reminding me of the Patriots in Super Bowl XLII; convinced they were going to win through most of the game, even though the Giants were matching them play-for-play, they only woke up to the threat too late. And so, they finished the season 18-1.

Liberal Democrats seem to be of the same mindset, and it shows with their one-sided reaction to Lugar. If they don’t wake up soon, they could be in for a nasty surprise in November. 

Jay Cost is a staff writer at THE WEEKLY STANDARD and the author of Spoiled Rotten, a critical history of the Democratic party, forthcoming from Broadside Books.

Recent Blog Posts

The Weekly Standard Archives

Browse 18 Years of the Weekly Standard

Old covers