After Sen. Richard Lugar’s decades-long career on the Hill came to an abrupt end Tuesday night, some of his Senate colleagues openly lamented his loss, defended his conservative credentials, and blasted his defeat as a troubling sign for the future of the chamber.
Those colleagues were on the other side of the aisle.
Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee where Lugar serves as ranking member, quickly addressed the primary results last night in a long, impassioned statement in support of his longtime friend and colleague, who took a 61-39 percent beating from Indiana state Treasurer Richard Mourdock.
“This is a tough period in American politics, but I’d like to think that we’ll again see a United States Senate where Dick Lugar’s brand of thoughtful, mature, and bi-partisan work is respected and rewarded,” he said.
But the main message was a warning that the bipartisanship is near the end of its run in the notoriously deadlocked upper chamber — or, as the senator put it Wednesday afternoon, “the alarm bells have been sounded.”
Kerry called Lugar’s loss “a tragedy for the Senate” and “a blow to the institution during a period when the institution itself has been strained.”
The onetime Democratic presidential candidate was far from finished with his lament, as he used a chunk of his floor time today to warn about the “consequences” of Lugar’s defeat.
“Whether you agreed with him or not,” Kerry said, Lugar “refused to allow this march to an orthodoxy about ideology… to get in the way of what he thought was the responsibility of a senator.”
“There’s no doubt from anyone on our side of the aisle that Dick Lugar is a conservative,” Kerry added, noting “he’s a proud Republican.”
The chairman said that only in the last few years had politics begun to interfere in the foreign policy side of Senate action, and “we would do well to get back in touch” with the good old days of cross-aisle cooperation.
“These are the same rules that we operated with when Bob Dole was leader, when George Mitchell was leader,” Kerry said. “We got things done … we don’ t have to change the rules, we have to change the thinking or change the people who don’t want to do it.”
The Massachusetts senator said lawmakers were needed with “intelligence and willpower to put the country and its interests above everything else.”
“My prayer is that this election year is going to help purge this country of this incredible waste of opportunity that we’re living through here,” Kerry said.
It was then Majority Whip Dick Durbin’s (D-Ill.) turn on the floor, where he said that Lugar and late Rhode Island moderate Republican John Chafee were “soulmates.”
“What a disappointment last night,” Durbin lamented, adding that he’d worked with Lugar on foreign policy in bipartisan settings such as the Aspen Institute.
“We also knew he was a Hoosier conservative,” Durbin added, saying that it was known that Lugar couldn’t be budged from his ideology and he hoped the Senate wouldn’t “succumb to temptation to making this place more partisan.”
“It is a loss,” he said. “It’s a sad day on both sides of the aisle that Dick Lugar won’t be part of the Senate in the future.”
While expressing doubts about the future of the chamber — and, clearly, fears about Tea Party influence within — the Democrats acknowledged that they don’t know who will ultimately fill Lugar’s seat in November.
But as much as they’ll miss their six-term colleague, Democrats are today more optimistic about the opportunity to fill a seat that was previously in the solid red column. Sensing this opportunity in the making, Majority PAC, the Dems’ Senate-race super PAC, spent $32,500 on anti-Lugar ads during the primary and not a dime against Mourdock.
Mourdock, backed by Sarah Palin and others on the Tea Party right, is “not Christine O’Donnell,” as former Indiana Sen. Evan Bayh (D) told ABC News, in terms of political and campaign experience — though Dems are said to have stocked up a trove of soundbites, including a call for more partisanship in Washington, and actions to whip out against Mourdock in this next leg of the contest.
And he hasn’t wasted any time jumping into the ring against his Democratic challenger in November, Blue Dog Rep. Joe Donnelly, who has polled evenly with Mourdock but trailed badly behind Lugar. In an email to the Breitbart News list today, Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) sent out a fundraising plea from the Senate Conservatives Fund to jump-start Mourdock’s general election effort.
“Mourdock is virtually defenseless after spending everything he had to win the primary election,” DeMint wrote. “The Democrats are going to come at him very hard in the next few weeks and work to brand him as an extremist. We need to act quickly to replenish Mourdock’s war chest so he can get the truth out about his record and vision for the future of this country.”
Mourdock has said he wants to model himself after DeMint and Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), the Tea Party Caucus member who replaced another senator deemed to not be conservative enough, Bob Bennett.
“We can’t depend on the Washington establishment to fight for him,” DeMint continued. “Given a choice between supporting a moderate candidate in one state and a conservative candidate like Mourdock in another, the establishment will put its money behind the moderate. They know liberal Republicans won’t stop business as usual in Washington and don’t have the courage to stand up to the leaders in their own party.”
In Mourdock’s quest to “move the Senate to a more conservative place,” that might mean not even supporting Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).
“What I’ve said is, if we get a few more conservatives in the United States Senate, we can certainly change the leadership, but not necessarily the people,” Mourdock said on MSNBC today. “I’ve never made any statement, in fact I’ve never had the occasion to talk to Mr. McConnell. We’ve not made any decision there whatsoever.”
“I recognize that this is one of those times where there is great polarization between the two parties, and frankly the ideas for which the parties are working are really at opposite ends of the spectrum — I don’t think there’s going to be a lot of successful compromise,” Mourdock said on CNN, adding bipartisanship should be Democrats coming back toward the right.
Lugar, in conceding the race to Mourdock last night, said he wants to see “my friend Mitch McConnell have a Republican majority in the Senate. I hope my opponent prevails in November to contribute to that Republican majority.”
In a statement issued before his concession speech, Lugar said he knew that he “was a likely target of Club for Growth, FreedomWorks and other Super Pacs dedicated to defeating at least one Republican as a purification exercise to enhance their influence over other Republican legislators.”
“From time to time during the last two years I heard from well-meaning individuals who suggested that I ought to consider running as an independent. My response was always the same: I am a Republican now and always have been,” he added. “I have no desire to run as anything else. All my life, I have believed in the Republican principles of small government, low taxes, a strong national defense, free enterprise, and trade expansion.”
Lugar urged Mourdock, if elected, “to revise his stated goal of bringing more partisanship to Washington.”
“What he has promised in this campaign is reflexive votes for a rejectionist orthodoxy and rigid opposition to the actions and proposals of the other party,” Lugar said. “…He has pledged his support to groups whose prime mission is to cleanse the Republican party of those who stray from orthodoxy as they see it.”
But the senator added that the increasing number of lawmakers “who have adopted an unrelenting partisan viewpoint” applies to both parties.
“Partisans at both ends of the political spectrum are dominating the political debate in our country,” he said. “And partisan groups, including outside groups that spent millions against me in this race, are determined to see that this continues.”
“Bipartisanship is not the opposite of principle,” Lugar added. “One can be very conservative or very liberal and still have a bipartisan mindset.”
Longtime Democratic lawmakers generally agreed that they’d miss the way that the longtime Republican lawmaker did business on the Hill: genteel and non-confrontational are adjectives they’ve used to describe Lugar.
But before the Senate turned back to squabbling about student-loan interest rates today, Durbin did deliver a bipartisan gesture not even seen in President Obama’s State of the Union speech — an address delivered shortly after the man who filled Obama’s Senate seat was felled by a stroke, but who was absent from Obama’s words.
Durbin said on the Senate floor that when a doctor first publicly issued a grim prognosis for his Illinois colleague, “I was upset because I thought, ‘He doesn’t know Mark Kirk.’ He will be back. …I’m sure it will be soon.”
Kirk singled out Durbin and a handful of other lawmakers among his “congressional family” that have supported him in a Chicago Tribune column today about his stroke.
Durbin, who spoke to Kirk this week, said he’s looking forward to getting back to weekly joint town hall meetings with the Republican senator. “People just love it when we disagree because we do it without getting angry at each other,” he said.
“There will be many from both sides of the aisle cheering his return to the United States Senate.”