Some liberals are trying to interpret the crushing defeat of six-term Republican Richard Lugar in an Indiana Republican senatorial primary as the creation of an opportunity for the Democrats to steal a GOP seat this fall. But the narrative being promoted today about rabid Tea Party extremists sacrificing another noble Republican moderate shows just how out of touch liberal theorists are with the country. Lugar was the ultimate establishment insider and President Obama’s favorite Republican when he was in the Senate. While there is something to be said for experience, this inveterate compromiser and foreign policy “realist” was a holdover from a bygone era in which members of the senatorial club thought of themselves as operating above and beyond the constraints of normal political life. Which is to say Lugar had outlived his usefulness to the people of Indiana a long time ago.
Equally foolish is the idea that the man who beat him, State Treasurer Richard Mourdock, is likely to face the fate of 2010 Republican outliers like Sharon Angle in Nevada or Christine O’Donnell in Delaware, whose extremism cost their parties easy general election victories. Mourdock is an experienced office-holder whose mainstream conservative views make him a perfect match for his state and likely to cruise to victory in the fall. The Mourdock triumph as well as the victory for supporters of traditional marriage in North Carolina is also a reminder that while this year will not be a repeat of the GOP’s midterm tsunami, it is also going to be nothing like 2008 when Obama won both states.
Though one shouldn’t draw hard and fast conclusions from last night’s primaries, the results in Indiana and North Carolina and even West Virginia should not reassure Democrats. The marriage vote may have cut across party and demographic lines, and the Democratic presidential primary in West Virginia in which a felon currently serving time in federal prison won 40 percent of the vote against Obama in a two-person race tell us nothing about the way these states will vote in the fall. But even the jokey protest vote in West Virginia shows that those empty seats at the president’s campaign kickoffs last weekend are truly an indication of a decline in enthusiasm for his cause.
There’s little question that Obama has an Electoral College advantage over Republican Mitt Romney, as there are more votes to be had in solidly blue states than those that are deep red. But if Republicans are daunted by the prospect of Romney having to come close to running the table of tossup states, the results in Indiana and North Carolina reveal the GOP is well-positioned to take back both in 2012.
While Democrats were crowing about the low turnout in some Republican primaries earlier this year, the fact that more turned out to vote in a virtually uncontested GOP primary for Governor Scott Walker in Wisconsin than in a competitive Democratic primary to choose his opponent in a recall election means the president ought not to make any assumptions about Wisconsin either.
As Mourdock’s Indiana victory showed, the Tea Party can’t be dismissed as a caricature of racism and extremism. It has gone mainstream because those who sympathize with it — such as the 60 percent of Republicans who turned out Lugar — are mainstream voters. While the president retains important advantages, the liberal surge fueled by an unpopular war and an economic collapse that sent him to the White House is over. Though 2012 won’t be a repeat of the GOP’s midterm massacre of Democrats, anyone who assumes that Obama can hold Indiana and North Carolina and some other traditionally Republican states he seized four years ago needs to pay better attention to last night’s returns.