By Brian Howey
INDIANAPOLIS - U.S. Sen. Dick Lugar – vanquished by age, longevity, barrel bottom congressional approval ratings and an aggressive opponent in Treasurer Richard Mourdock – seemed to be bridging a divided party when he took the stage shortly after 8 on Tuesday night as the magnitude of the 61-39% landslide against him registered.
“Hoosier Republican primary voters have chosen their candidate for the U.S. Senate,” said Lugar. “I congratulate my opponent on his victory in a hard fought race. I want to see a Republican in the White House, and I want to see my friend Mitch McConnell have a Republican majority in the Senate. I hope my opponent prevails in November to contribute to a Republican majority.”
Minutes later came a second written statement that sent the political world from Indianapolis to Washington abuzz. It was a reaction to the $4 million in outside money spent against him, and Mourdock’s all-out assault on “bipartisanship” that pre-staged the upset of the most prolific vote getter in Indiana Republican history.
“If Mr. Mourdock is elected, I want him to be a good senator,” Lugar said. “But that will require him to revise his stated goal of bringing more partisanship to Washington. 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. This is not conducive to problem-solving and governance. And he will find that unless he modifies his approach, he will achieve little as a legislator. Worse, he will help delay solutions that are totally beyond the capacity of partisan majorities to achieve.”
At a unity press conference early Wednesday morning, I asked Gov. Mitch Daniels about the second Lugar statement, which could be a precursor to a Republican civil war. Daniels responded with a story: A temperance woman was told that Jesus had made water into wine. She responded, “I wish he hadn’t done that.”
A few minutes earlier, Daniels made the case that Mourdock is stitch and cloth out of the Hoosier GOP quilt. “He comes right out of the heart and mainstream of our party,” Daniels said, noting Mourdock has won three elections in the last five years.
Is Richard Mourdock an “extremist”? Is the Indiana GOP the proverbial “house divided”?
A March Howey/DePauw Indiana Battleground poll showed Mourdock and Democrat Joe Donnelly tied at 35 percent, so this will be a competitive race. And our April /May Howey/DePauw survey showed that 57 percent of Lugar supporters have an unfavorable opinion of Mourdock. We also asked Republicans if they wanted a senator who gets things done while working with Democrats, or one who takes ideological stands. The former had 60% support, the latter 33 percent (read top lines from both polls at www.howeypolitics.com).
Indiana Democratic Chairman Dan Parker said of Mourdock, “He believes Social Security and Medicare are unconstitutional,” Parker said. “Is that in the Republican mainstream? He’s against the direct election of U.S. senators in the 17th Amendment. Does Gov. Daniels agree with that position? Will that be in the Republican Party platform?”
I asked Mourdock about bipartisanship Wednesday morning. Is there a time when he believes he can reach out across the aisle to Democrats?
“Sure. There is always a time for compromise on issues, but not on principle,” Mourdock said. “I recognize there are times when our country is incredibly polarized in that political sense. Right now is one of those times. The leadership of the Republican Party and the leadership of the Democratic Party are not going to be able to reach compromise on big issues because they are so far apart in principle. My idea of bipartisanship going forward is to make sure that we have such a Republican majority in the U.S. House and U.S. Senate and in the White House, that if there’s going to be bipartisanship, it’s going to be Democrats coming our way, instead of them trying to pull Republicans their way.”
That feeds into a campaign trail notion that Mourdock’s priority is going to Washington to defeat liberals and Democrats.
An hour after Mourdock made that explanation, U.S. Rep. Joe Donnelly met with reporters at Ralph’s Great Divide restaurant. Donnelly insisted the site was chosen because “they have great meatloaf,” but used the place as a metaphor that the contrast between him and Mourdock “cannot be clearer.”
Donnelly said that Mourdock was going on national TV shows this morning “saying he’s not a Tea Party guy, because he is. He tried to devastate the auto industry and he tried to destroy the lives of thousands of people in Kokomo.” That was in reference to Mourdock’s 2009 lawsuit to try and prevent the Chrysler/Fiat merger.
“He said he’s for bipartisanship as long as Republicans get what they want,” Donnelly said. “That’s like the kid who comes to the park with the ball and bat and says, ‘We have to play by my rules or I’m going home’.”
The reality is a fraction of the 19% of the electorate defeated the most prolific vote-getter in Indiana GOP history. It will be months before we know if it was a master stroke, or the epic fool’s errand as Democrats and independents join the argument for a Senate seat in play.