Voters in Indiana on Tuesday will determine the fate of a 36-year Republican veteran of the Senate, while Democrats in Wisconsin will choose a standard bearer to try to oust embattled Republican Gov. Scott Walker from office in a June recall election. It’s the latest chapter in the 2012 primary drama – with twists and turns as potentially compelling as a bestselling pageturner.
Short of a last-minute miracle, Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana, a leading Senate Republican on foreign policy and nuclear and chemical arms control, will go down to defeat at the hands of Richard Mourdock, a Tea Party-backed state treasurer who has criticized Lugar for losing touch with the state and for the political sin of cooperating with the Democrats. The six-term Lugar was trailing Mourdock by ten points, 48 percent to 38 percent, in a poll on Monday afternoon.
Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett is the clear frontrunner, meanwhile, in a Democratic primary for the right to face Walker in a rare recall election. The election was triggered by Walker’s championing of a law shortly after he took office last year that greatly curbs the collective bargaining rights of most state public employees. Barrett, who lost to Walker in the 2010 governor’s race, is battling Kathleen Falk, former Dane County executive, for the nomination.
And in North Carolina, the most recent poll shows Lt. Governor Walter Dalton (D) leading former House member Bob Etheridge for the Democratic nomination to run for governor in November. Former Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory is expected to win the GOP primary. McCrory is favored to win in the general election, and the outcome of the race could have some bearing on President Obama’s showing in that key battleground state.
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Tuesday’s primaries will mark the first time this year that Republican presidential politics takes a back seat to state politics, ever since former governor Mitt Romney wrapped up the GOP contest with same-day victories in Connecticut, Delaware, New York, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island on April 24. Romney became the presumptive nominee after former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich both dropped out of the race. But Rep. Ron Paul, R-Tex., is hanging in, and over the weekend his supporters dominated state GOP delegate selection conventions in Nevada and Maine. Paul has zero chance of winning the nomination, but he’s certain to arrive at the national convention in Tampa in August with enough delegates to demand a prominent spot on the podium and a say in the shape of the party’s platform.
TEA PARTY: STILL POTENT?
This week’s primary episode may also provide fresh evidence of whether the Tea Party continues to be a potent force within GOP politics, as it presses all out to defeat Lugar in Indiana. Lugar insists his decades of experience and success in shaping foreign policy and agriculture legislation should count for a lot, and makes no apology for his bipartisan efforts to keep nuclear weapons out of the hands of terrorists and rogue states. But Mourdock’s campaign claims that Lugar is “President Obama’s favorite Republican,” and isn’t a true conservative – although Lugar has a 77 percent lifetime rating by the American Conservative Union and voted against Obama’s stimulus, healthcare plan and financial overhaul legislation.
Reuters reports that Lugar’s expertise on foreign policy – from Pakistan to nuclear disarmament – has become a campaign burden as critics accuse him of forgetting the Midwestern values of Indiana, where he has not lived since 1977. Conservatives fume about bipartisan votes by Lugar over the years, including approval of Obama’s Supreme Court nominees Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.
Lugar's response to his first primary challenge since his election in 1976 has been seen as outdated and lackluster. "He [Lugar] hadn't had a real race in decades and didn't seem ready for this one despite all the warning signs," Jennifer Duffy of the Cook Political Report told Reuters. "They haven't run the race they needed to run." Negative advertising by Lugar has backfired in the local press partly because he has always been a kinder, gentler campaigner.