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Richard Lugar of Indiana, a six-term Senate veteran and one of the most influential lawmakers on foreign affairs, lost in a primary that underscored the dominance of anti-tax Tea Party activism against established Republican party leaders.
Yesterday’s victory by Indiana State Treasurer Richard Mourdock in the Republican race improves Democrats’ odds of gaining the Senate seat in November. Republicans have experienced other setbacks in their drive to control the Senate, including some involving the party’s anti-government activists.
Republican Senator Olympia Snowe of Maine, who at one point risked a Tea Party challenge, announced on Feb. 28 she will retire rather than seek re-election to a Congress she said is growing too partisan. The front-runner to succeed her, independent and former Maine Governor Angus King, is a one-time Democrat who won’t say which party he would align with if elected.
“This is something that has been building for some time, and it’s not going to go away anytime soon,” said Eric Uslaner, a political science professor at the University of Maryland in College Park. As politics become more polarized, it “gives a lot of power to the more conservative elements in the Republican Party.”
While Republicans were once seen as having the edge to take over the Senate majority that Democrats control 53-47, political strategists say the battle now seems more evenly matched.
“I don’t know that Republicans have the advantage anymore,” said Jennifer Duffy, Senate editor of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. “I call the Senate a 50-50 proposition now.”
Senator John Cornyn of Texas, chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said he remains “very optimistic” about his party winning the Senate and in Indiana.
“It’s a Republican state, and I’m confident we’ll hold the seat,” he said.
Indiana Democrats say their Senate nominee, U.S. Representative Joe Donnelly, 56, can beat Mourdock, 60, because his criticism of bipartisanship may not play as well in a general election. The 80-year-old Lugar, the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, was attacked by Mourdock for voting with Democrats, including for the $700 billion bailout of the banking industry passed in 2008 during President George W. Bush’s term.
With all precincts reporting, Mourdock had almost 61 percent of the vote to 39 percent for Lugar, according to the Associated Press.
Republicans have several things working in their favor in this year’s fight for Senate control. Democrats have 23 seats to defend in November, compared with 10 for Republicans. While the economy has improved some, the 8.1 percent unemployment rate remains a factor for President Barack Obama and lawmakers in his party. That includes the two Democratic senators seen as most vulnerable this fall, Claire McCaskill of Missouri and Jon Tester of Montana.
Republicans are favored to pick up the Senate seat of retiring Democratic Senator Ben Nelson of Nebraska, even though Democrat Bob Kerrey, a former governor who also represented the state in the Senate, has entered the race.
In Massachusetts, where Democratic consumer advocate Elizabeth Warren is running against Republican Senator Scott Brown, the challenger faces questions about her claim of Native American ancestry and whether that gave her advantages while teaching at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Democrats say they have more reason for optimism, including Republican infighting that could influence key races.
“We’re seeing this reflexive Tea Party ideology play out in a number of races,” said Guy Cecil, executive director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
In Indiana, Mourdock is backed by FreedomWorks, which has helped fund and organize the Tea Party movement, and the small- government group Club for Growth. He was endorsed by anti-tax activist Grover Norquist, and Tea Party favorites Sarah Palin, the 2008 vice presidential nominee, and former presidential candidate and Republican Representative Michele Bachmann of Minnesota.
Lugar, in conceding defeat for the seat he first won in 1976, told supporters in Indianapolis last night that he wants Mourdock to defeat Donnelly. He said he has “no regrets” about seeking a seventh term as he congratulated Mourdock on his victory.
At the same time, Lugar criticized the partisanship in Congress, saying the hardening of positions by both parties means “our political system is losing its ability to explore alternatives.”
Jubilant Tea Party supporters proclaimed “VICTORY” and “We did it” in an e-mail that also said, “Now we can all rejoice that we have a nominee in Richard Mourdock that will stand up for Tea Party values and fiscal responsibility.”
The statement by the Tea Party Express said the primary showed “that if our politicians are careless and frivolous with taxpayer’s money, we will go after you, no matter what side of the aisle you are on.”
In another race with dynamics similar to those in Indiana, former Wisconsin Governor Tommy Thompson is facing a challenge in the Republican Senate primary from former U.S. Representative Mark Neumann, who is backed by Club for Growth and other outside groups.
Neumann had raised $1.47 million by the end of March while Thompson had collected $1.32 million. They are seeking to fill the seat of retiring Democratic Senator Herb Kohl. Their campaign accounts are dwarfed by the only Democrat in the race, Representative Tammy Baldwin, who has collected $4.45 million.
Meanwhile, Republican infighting may be giving a boost to Democratic Senator Bill Nelson of Florida.
U.S. Representative Connie Mack, Nelson’s lead Republican challenger, is being criticized by his top rival in the state’s Aug. 14 Republican primary, former Senator George LeMieux. LeMieux questioned whether Mack spends too much time in Palm Springs, California, with his wife, Republican Representative Mary Bono. LeMieux has released an online ad poking fun at Mack’s previous employment in marketing for the “Hooters” bar chain.
Nelson is leading in recent polls, and has a big fundraising advantage. He’s raked in $11.9 million so far and has $9.55 million cash on hand, while Mack has raised only $2.2 million and has $1.38 million cash on hand.
“Connie Mack has proven himself not to be a very strong candidate so far,” said Hastings Wyman, founder of the Washington-based non-partisan Southern Political Report.
In addition to a handful of contentious primary contests, Republican odds for winning control of the Senate may be diminished by an improved political environment for Democrats.
In Virginia, where former Republican Governor George Allen and former Democratic Governor Tim Kaine are evenly matched in their contest for an open Senate seat, Obama may help Kaine, Wyman said.
Obama, who carried Virginia four years ago, leads Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney 51 percent to 44 percent in the state, according to an April 28-May 2 Washington Post poll of 1,101 adults.
“Republicans thought Kaine’s association with Obama would hurt him badly, and it turns out Obama is running well ahead in Virginia,” Wyman said.
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