Lugar Faces the Tea Party Music

A couple of weeks ago, my friend R.K. Barry wrote an Elephant Dung post on how the Indiana Tea Party is going after long-time and highly-respected Republican Sen. Richard Lugar, planning a 2012 challenge that could ultimately bring down one of the few remaining sensible Republicans on Capitol Hill. Well, it ain’t lookin’ good for Lugar:

Indiana state Treasurer Richard Mourdock will launch his primary challenge to Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) on Tuesday with the support of a majority of both the state’s 92 Republican county chairmen and its state party executive committee, he told the Fix in a recent interview.

“I feel bad that he’s going to be humiliated by this list,” Mourdock said.

Mourdock added that he believes Gov. Mitch Daniels (R) and Rep. Mike Pence (R), the party’s two leading figures in the Hoosier State, are going to stay neutral in the primary — though Daniels, who was Lugar’s campaign manager three different times, has already committed to voting for the senator.

That such a large contingent of the party establishment should come out against or withhold support from an incumbent senator is highly unusual and reflects the difficult path ahead for Lugar in advance of the May 8, 2012, primary fight. It also suggests there is a clear path to victory for Mourdock.

From what I can tell, Mourdock isn’t just another Sharron Angle, Christine O’Donnell, or John Raese. While he’s to the right of Lugar, he would appear to be a competent figure who could well win a general election in what is already a red-leaning state. And he’s not a full-on Teabagger:

Mourdock is clear on one thing: he is not running as a tea party candidate. While he welcomes the support of tea party groups and says he expects them to coalesce around his campaign, he recognizes the limitations of being defined as a tea party candidate.

“Mr. Lugar will try to paint me that way, because he’s speaking very demeaningly about the tea party right now,” Mourdock said. “I think he’s doing it that way to set it up and say, ‘Mourdock is some wild-eyed extremist.’”

Well, an extremist he is, if well within the mainstream of today’s GOP, but Lugar will likely have a hard time making his case stick, what with so much of the state party likely to line up behind Mourdock. (Although an endorsement from Daniels would help.)

What’s interesting, though, as we continue to track the GOP’s civil war, is that Lugar is hardly a moderate. As R.K. put it:

It seems that Lugar’s sin is that he voted to confirm a couple of liberal Supreme Court justices and voted for the START treaty to reduce the stockpile of nuclear weapons in the world. It’s not like he voted for health-care reform or the economic stimulus package, offenses that would likely have gotten him beheaded before they threw him out of office. No, just a couple of votes on the Supremes and a missile treaty seems to be enough to incur the wrath of the radical right.

Never mind that based on so many other indicators he’s a fairly conservative fellow, which is born out by the fact that he’s always been pro-life and pro-business, and an advocate for lower taxes and smaller government.

He’s a solid conservative, in other words, and a loyal Republican — not that either is good enough these days, not with the Tea Party demanding absolutism on a broad core of policy positions. And even compromising on a couple of issues (which pretty much everyone in Congress has to do over the course of a long career), even showing a breadth of understanding beyond narrow ideological parochialism (which Lugar, a foreign policy expert, certainly has done), can bring about one’s downfall at the hands of the Republican Bolsheviks.

R.K. notes that Lugar is “just too damn strong and viewed as unbeatable by the political establishment,” and hence that a Tea Party challenge would be “a colossal waste of time,” but this isn’t just about the Tea Party anymore. Rather, it’s about a broader conservative challenge to Lugar, including from within the state party establishment. It’s hard to imagine Lugar losing, but it’s easier now than ever before, what with the Tea Party and the Republican establishment making nice all across the country, endangering not just Lugar but even the likes of Orrin Hatch in Utah, hardly anything other than a hardcore conservative.

This says a lot about the state of the Republican Party today as it looks ahead to 2012, a party of increasing extremism that, with the Tea Party pushing its buttons, is trying — often successfully — to purge its ranks of “sinners,” of those who have deviated from the far-right line.

And I’m all for it, because it just makes Republicans even more unelectable. They won the House last year because of a bad economy and low voter turnout (and successful propaganda), but things will be different next year, with Obama rebounding, the economy (hopefully) improving, and enthusiasm among Democrats returning (if not quite to ’08 levels). Moving further and further to the right while dismissing even the likes of Richard Lugar would just make their chances even worse.

(Cross-posted from The Reaction.)

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