On May 8 six-term Senator Richard Lugar of Indiana lost to challenger, State Treasurer, Richard Mourdock. Lugar was popular with Republican and Democratic voters since he was reelected in 2006 by 87 percent of voters, but this primary was exclusively Republican. Despite having a rating of 77 out of 100 by the American Conservative Union he was portrayed as a moderate by Tea Party backed Mourdock. Lugar was never a moderate much less a liberal, but he was a senator who knew when to make deals with the opposition and in the current political climate that is unacceptable. In conceding defeat Lugar warned, “He and I share many positions, but his embrace of an unrelenting partisan mindset is irreconcilable with my philosophy of governance and my experience of what brings results for Hoosiers in the Senate.” Lugar would have won reelection easily since he was popular with both sides, but now that is not so certain since he will be challenged by Congressman Joseph Donnelly, a Democrat with conservative opinions who might be able to win against an opponent who is an unabashed partisan extremist.
This trend actually began in 2010 and in that midterm election Republicans had a chance of winning majority control of the Senate, but fell short on account of the candidates nominated. It is happening again as compromise and moderation is now ideologically incorrect which lead to the defeat of Lugar as well as the reason Olympia Snow chose not to run for reelection. She was popular with both sides too which is why she won reelection easily, but in a state that leans Democrat her seat could be lost.
Presently the Republicans need four seats to gain the majority although a Mitt Romney victory would require just 3 since the vice president can cast tie breaking votes. They are likely to pick up Nebraska and North Dakota which are held by retiring Democratic senators. Since those states are largely conservative and the Republican candidates are not radically conservative these are two seat Republicans will likely get. Maine is being considered a likely loss for Republicans and now Indiana’s status is not as certain. There are also seven other seats and while most are held by Democrats winning all or the few needed to regain the majority is more difficult than it could have been. Senator Scott Brown managed to do the impossible by winning the late Edward Kennedy’s seat and avoid alienating the largely Democratic voters, but his opponent Elizabeth Warren is popular with the progressives and firing up the base. It is still too early to reasonably predict these contests since some states have yet to hold a primary. If whoever prevails is someone like Brown then it is a possible victory, but someone like Mourdock could lose it.
The Tea Party fires up the conservative base, but it also alienates and polarizes the opposition. President Obama and the Democrat’s waning popularity made it possible for the Republicans to take 6 Senate seats as well as regain majority control of the House of Representatives in 2010, but they could have won majority control if they had nominated better candidates than Sharon Angle, Ken Buck, Linda McMahon, and Christine O’Donnell of Nevada, Colorado, Connecticut, and Delaware respectively. The Democrats are still vulnerable in states where they do not have a decisive majority like Montana and Virginia, but if the Tea Party has their way only uncompromising doctrinaire conservatives will win and voters who are wary of the partisan bickering will choose the candidate they find most sensible.
It is uncertain if the Tea Party will dissipate if Republicans win big in November, but for now they are pulling the party to the most radical ends which happened to the Democrats throughout the 1980s. As Democrats began to lose power they became more ideologically discriminating and the trend did not stop until William Clinton was elected in 1992. Since then there have been fewer elected liberal Democrats each year and while Republicans continue to brand them as such today’s Democrat is quite different that the ones from the Great Society or Neal Deal era. Liberals and other ideological Democrats get frustrated by this, but trending to the right was the only way for the Democrats to be politically viable. However, the Republicans have trended so far to the right that they are slipping out of what most voters consider normal. Dissatisfaction with the economic crisis has been beneficial for recent gains, but Republicans like Mourdock cannot govern because they refuse to work with the opposition and it will not take long for voters to reject and the Republican Party for a long time to come.