Primary Battles: Lugar and Walker on the Hot Seat
Policy + Politics

Primary Battles: Lugar and Walker on the Hot Seat

TFT/Darren Hauck, Hyungwon Kang, Reuters

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.

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.

Mourdock announced his candidacy in February 2011, and most Indiana Tea Party groups have coalesced around him. A Mourdock victory would be a coup for the populist Tea Party movement, its first significant Republican establishment scalp of 2012. "If we beat Lugar it will show Republicans in Washington we are a force that is here to stay," Greg Fettig of Hoosiers for a Conservative Senate, a Tea Party umbrella group backing Mourdock, told Reuters.

If the Tea Party prevails in nominating Mourdock, Democrats are optimistic that would enhance the chances for Rep. Joe Donnelly, D-Ind., to win the Senate seat in the November general election. Two years ago, five Republicans won Senate seats with Tea Party backing in Pennsylvania, Kentucky, Florida, Wisconsin and Utah, while four went down to defeat in Delaware, Nevada, West Virginia and Colorado.

“Assuming Lugar loses . . . the lesson is clear,” Larry Sabato, a University of Virginia political scientist, told The Fiscal Times. “Our society is now so polarized that bipartisan cooperation and compromise can be a ticket to political oblivion. Republicans in Indiana appear ready to sacrifice 36 years of seniority and an internationally known and respected senator because he occasionally worked with Democrats and didn't have a 100 percent ideologically pure record. That is truly remarkable. Other senators will quickly learn the lesson and adjust their behavior, making the Senate even more gridlocked than it already is.”

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Meanwhile, the two Democrats vying for a shot at ousting Gov. Walker in Wisconsin aimed their attacks at the Republican incumbent rather than at each other during a debate late last week. "This state has been at war for the last 16 months," Barrett said. "I will end the civil war in the state of Wisconsin. I will restore trust in the governor's office and heal the wounds that have deeply divided the state."

The first-term governor enraged Democrats and public sector unions last year when he pushed a measure through the Republican-led state legislature to reduce the power of public sector unions. The measure forced state and local government workers like teachers to pay a portion of the cost of health insurance and pensions, capped wage increases and required unions to be recertified every year.

Walker's opponents collected nearly a million signatures from registered voters to force a recall vote. All of the Democratic candidates vowed to restore collective bargaining powers for public sector unions if elected. They also promised to focus on creating jobs in the state after a report last week said Wisconsin lost more jobs than any other state in the last 12 months.

Though Walker vowed to create 250,000 jobs during his first term, Wisconsin lost 23,900 jobs between March 2011 and March 2012, and the state ranked dead last among all 50 states in job creation, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

"We are all united here in our effort to defeat Scott Walker," said Kathleen Falk, the former Dane County executive who has been running second behind Barrett in polls. According a poll last week, Barrett leads Falk 38 to 21 percent among Democrats, with 19 percent undecided.

"What Falk needed was a game changer," John McAdams, political science professor at Marquette University, told Reuters. "Even a poor performance by Barrett would not have sufficed. It needed to be a major blunder. She didn't get it."

Republican political strategist Ron Bonjean said that Walker would have the upper hand heading into next month's recall vote because the Democratic primary battle has been divisive. "The Democrats have very little time to organize and go after Walker and generate that voter enthusiasm," Bonjean told The Fiscal Times. "They're pretty divided going into this primary."

Sabato said he was troubled that “we're on our way to a replay of the Walker-Barrett election of 2010, which ought to concern people who are not hard partisans. Look at the mess in Wisconsin and the turmoil this has caused,” he added. “Terms are short enough as it is. Now, because of recall provisions, the same election is being fought and re-fought, not just for governor but for many state senate seats. This is no way to run a Republic.”