WASHINGTON — Six-term Indiana Sen. Richard Lugar was routed by the right flank of his own Republican Party on Tuesday, and North Carolina voters decided overwhelmingly to strengthen their state’s gay marriage ban. It was a double-barreled show of conservative enthusiasm and strength six months before the nation chooses between Democratic President Barack Obama and GOP rival Mitt Romney.
Romney swept three Republican primaries, moving ever closer to sealing his nomination in an otherwise sharply polarized environment.
“We are experiencing deep political divisions in our society right now. These divisions have stalemated progress in critical areas,” Lugar, a Capitol Hill diplomat and a deal-maker, said as he conceded to the tea party-backed GOP opponent who ended his nearly four-decade career in the Senate. Lugar’s foe, state Treasurer Richard Mourdock, had painted the Republican senator as too moderate for the conservative state.
North Carolinians voted to amend their state constitution to define marriage as between one man and one woman, effectively outlawing gay unions through a ballot measure pursued by the right.
Also Tuesday, Democrats overwhelmingly picked Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett to challenge Republican Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker in a June recall election. The primary outcome set up a rematch; Barrett lost to Walker in 2010.
The highly charged and hard-fought contests overshadowed Romney’s continued progress toward the GOP presidential nomination. He won the Republican presidential primaries in Indiana, North Carolina and West Virginia on Tuesday, drawing close to the 1,144 delegates he needs to clinch the nomination. He won at least 59 delegates, with 37 still undecided. He had 915 delegates, 229 shy of what he needs to become the formal nominee.
Even Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, was essentially ignoring the primaries. He spent the day campaigning in Michigan, where he castigated Obama as an “old-school liberal” whose policies would take the country backward. And Romney didn’t weigh in on the primary outcomes or Lugar’s defeat.
The results of Tuesday’s far-flung voting gave clues about the state of the electorate — and illustrated the political minefields facing both Republican and Democratic candidates — with the presidential contest well under way. The results were a warning to incumbents. They also highlighted tea party enthusiasm. And, in one state at least, they indicated that wedge issues are still a force even with an electorate focused on economic concerns.
Also, there was an indication of just how unpopular Obama is in some parts of the country.
A man in prison in Texas was getting nearly 4 out of 10 votes in West Virginia’s Democratic presidential primary against Obama, who faces no serious primary challenger. The inmate, Keith Judd, is serving time at the Beaumont Federal Correctional Institution in Texas for making threats at the University of New Mexico in 1999.
Within minutes of Lugar’s loss, Democrats were already painting Mourdock as too extreme for the state.
Tea party groups were crowing about the win, and Mourdock urged supporters to donate to his general election campaign, saying: “We left everything on the table to win the primary.” He will face Democratic Rep. Joe Donnelly in November.
Republicans need to gain four seats to take control of the U.S. Senate, and a Lugar loss “gives Democrats a pickup opportunity,” Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said.
Earlier in the day, Lugar, 80, made clear he would stand by Tuesday’s outcome, ruling out running as an independent.
“This is it,” he said.
With 98 percent of precincts reporting, Lugar had just under 40 percent of the vote to Mourdock’s just over 60 percent.
Playing out in a conservative state, the race illustrated the electorate’s animosity toward many incumbents and anyone with deep ties to Washington. That was clear when Lugar, who hasn’t faced questions about his residency in decades, found himself on the defensive over whether he lived in Indiana or northern Virginia. Lugar also was cast as too moderate for the conservative GOP in Indiana, and he took heat for his work with Democrats on issues such as nuclear nonproliferation, underscoring deep polarization in the country as well as a split in the GOP between the establishment wing and the insurgent tea party.
In a statement, Obama praised his former Senate colleague as someone “who was often willing to reach across the aisle and get things done.”
The Mourdock vs. Donnelly match up could develop into a hotly contested race with the potential to affect the White House contest.
Obama carried Indiana in 2008, partly because of his ties to the populous northwestern part of the state neighboring his hometown of Chicago. Democrats acknowledge it will be difficult to win Indiana again this year. Still, the state could become more hospitable to Obama if the Democrats, believing they have a better chance with Lugar out of the race, spend heavily to compete against Mourdock. The state now is on the Obama team’s watch list.
Elsewhere, North Carolina voters moved in the opposite direction from a string of states — Democratic-leaning places such as New York and Vermont as well as conservative Iowa — where same-sex marriage is now legal. Six states and Washington, D.C., now recognize gay unions.
North Carolina law already bans gay marriage, but the amendment on the state ballot effectively slammed that door. With 74 percent of precincts reporting, more than 60 percent had voted to strengthen the ban, while just under 40 percent had opposed it.
In the days before the North Carolina vote, two top administration officials — Vice President Joe Biden and Education Secretary Arne Duncan — expressed support for gay marriage. Obama supports most gay rights but has stopped short of backing gay marriage.
The Biden and Duncan comments sent the White House into damage-control mode as gay rights advocates pressed for him to publicly support of same-sex unions before November. Aides also tried to use the focus on the issue to criticize Romney’s equivocations on gay rights over the years.
Romney, in turn, emphasized his position that marriage should be solely between one man and one woman. He has said he supports a federal constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage.
In Wisconsin, voters chose Barrett — one of four Democrats on the ballot — to challenge Walker in the June 5 recall election.
Union rights are dominating the recall.
Walker effectively ended collective bargaining rights for most state workers and since then has emerged as a national conservative hero. The recall effort, mounted by opponents of his actions, has dominated the state political landscape, even overshadowing Romney’s primary victory there that essentially ended the nomination fight.
Now the presumptive nominee, Romney had no serious opposition in Indiana, West Virginia and North Carolina on Tuesday.
Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, who gave Romney a tepid endorsement Monday night via email, and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich have dropped out of the race. Texas Rep. Ron Paul is still contesting the nomination, but he lags far behind in the delegate count.
LoBianco reported from Indianapolis. Associated Press writer Donna Cassata in Washington contributed to this report.