WASHINGTON — The primary defeat of Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana, a six-term Senate veteran and one of the most influential lawmakers on foreign affairs, underscores the dominance among Republicans of anti-tax tea party activism against established leadership.
Tuesday’s victory by Indiana State Treasurer Richard Mourdock in the Republican race also improves Democrats’ odds of gaining the Senate seat in November. It comes as Republicans have experienced other setbacks in their drive to control the Senate, including some due to the party’s anti-government activists.
Republican Sen. 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 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.”
Sen. 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, Rep. 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.
Republicans have some factors working in their favor in this year’s battle for the Senate. Democrats have 23 seats to defend on the ballot, compared with only 10 for Republicans. While the economy has improved some, the 8.1 percent unemployment rate remains a drag on President Barack Obama and lawmakers in his party. That includes the two Democratic senators seen 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 Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska, despite the recent entry of Democrat Bob Kerrey, a former governor who also represented the state in the Senate.
In Massachusetts, where Democratic consumer advocate Elizabeth Warren is running against Republican Sen. Scott Brown, the challenger faces questions about her claim of Native American ancestry and whether that gave her advantages while teaching at Harvard.
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 Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota.
Lugar, in conceding defeat for the seat he first won in 1976, told supporters in Indianapolis Tuesday 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 email 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 also 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 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 locked in a dead- heat for a Senate seat, Kaine might get a lift from Obama, said Hastings Wyman, founder of the Washington-based non-partisan Southern Political Report.
Obama, who carried Virginia four years ago, leads presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney 51 percent to 44 percent in the state, according to an April 28-May 2 Washington Post poll of 1,101 adults.
“I think Republicans thought Kaine’s association with Obama would hurt him badly, and it turns out Obama is running well ahead in Virginia,” said Wyman.
With assistance from Kathleen Hunter in Washington.