Dick Lugar spent almost his entire Senate career trying to make the world safer from the specter of nuclear war.
But as it turned out on Tuesday night, Indiana Republicans weren’t motivated to vote for the longtime statesman’s foreign policy bona fides, and he lost his party’s nomination to state Treasurer Richard Mourdock by about 20 points.
Indeed, the two-time Foreign Relations chairman’s devotion to an issue that had its peak in the ’80s and ’90s seemed to only fuel the narrative that he was out of touch both at home and in Washington, D.C.
“He didn’t evolve,” one Senate Republican aide said. “When you don’t evolve in politics, you die. You have to always figure out if you’re on the leading edge. This is the major leagues. You can’t just fake your way through a Senate election.”
Yet it may be that Lugar’s ultimate downfall wasn’t that he hadn’t been playing the game right but that in recent years he didn’t seem to be playing the game at all.
In this Congress, the 80-year-old has spoken on the Senate floor for only 31 minutes over two legislative days, according to C-SPAN. By contrast, Sen.
Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), who is also facing a primary this cycle, spent 18 hours on the floor over 61 days.
In fact, Lugar hasn’t clocked double-digit hours in floor speeches since the 107th Congress — a decade ago. And in Republicans’ weekly caucus luncheon, he isn’t often a vocal participant — although no one disputes that he has the wide respect of nearly all of his colleagues.
This wouldn’t have mattered in previous cycles such as 2006, when Lugar was the only GOP Senator without a general election opponent. But the national political landscape changed, and Lugar didn’t.
Twelve years ago, Lugar won re-election with the simple slogan: “The experience to do more.” A mantra like that wouldn’t have the same appeal to voters today, especially in a tea-party-driven GOP primary.
“It’s a bit of a tragedy for him that, for all his accomplishments in foreign policy, they’re not on the front burner right now.” said Brad Todd, who was Lugar’s media consultant in 2000. “But elections are not about what have you done for me lately, but what you are going to do for me tomorrow.”
Just days before the Senate held a dramatic Christmas Eve vote in 2009 on President Barack Obama’s signature health care bill, Lugar delivered a passionate floor speech — on preventing nuclear proliferation.
The remarks were woefully out of tune with the rest of his party. Moments after he spoke, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) launched immediately into an attack of the health care legislation.
Lugar was the only Republican Senator who did not speak on the floor against the law. Multiple Republican sources close to the health care debate complained that, at the time, Lugar gave leadership headaches with his reticence. Finally, Lugar entered a statement into the Congressional Record asking Democrats to focus on the economy instead.
Being an attack dog was never in Lugar’s nature. That was evident in 1996, when the jovial, silver-haired lawmaker’s presidential campaign never got off the ground. For his entire Senate career, Lugar’s wheelhouse always was, and continues to be, as a statesman.
That focus translated better to voters decades ago. But the Foreign Relations Committee, where Lugar did his most significant work and cultivated his deepest relationships, isn’t what it used to be.
The committee’s prestige has dwindled over the past 20 years. When Lugar came to Congress, the committee regularly passed State Department and foreign aid authorization bills.
More recently, the committee has lost clout, with more and more foreign policy getting made in the Armed Services and Appropriations committees instead. It’s been a slow decline due in part to party polarization on foreign policy issues as well as to a post-9/11 focus on security over diplomacy.
But at the same time that the committee’s influence waned, Lugar’s voice diminished in the remaining key foreign relations debates on Capitol Hill. He also largely stayed on the sidelines during debates over the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. His cautious approach to foreign affairs put him at odds with his GOP colleagues.
Lugar urged prudence while Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), ranking member on Armed Services, encouraged the country to intervene in Libya. Lugar voiced a similarly cautious position on U.S. intervention in Syria last year, an issue that also split Republicans.
But perhaps the greatest signal of Lugar’s fading influence on foreign policy within his party came during the 2010 debate over ratifying the New START nuclear arms control treaty with Russia. Despite Lugar’s decades of experience on the subject, his GOP colleagues tapped Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (Ariz.) to negotiate with the White House on the accord. Lugar was the only Republican Senator to join Democrats and support its ratification from the beginning. He earned a measure of vindication when the Senate ultimately approved ratification of the treaty with the help of several Republicans. But it was clear he was no longer the leading voice for his party on the issue.
All the while, Lugar never let up his mantle as a statesman, even after it went out of political style. In the months leading up to the primary, Lugar’s office continued to send out a regularly updated email scorecard with the number of deactivated nuclear warheads resulting from the 1992 Nunn-Lugar agreement.
The same scorecard hangs in Lugar’s office, with Velcro strips to update the ever-increasing number of deactivated deadly weapons.
Unfortunately for Lugar, those numbers didn’t move his own poll numbers when Mourdock began attacking him this year.
Campaign Plagued by Errors
Lugar is the seventh Senator in 30 years to lose a primary, according to a Washington Post tally.
There are two schools of thought on his electoral peril: He could have salvaged his career, or his re-election was impossible in this political climate.
Either way, Lugar’s problems were years in the making. They started before the tea party dominated GOP primaries in 2010 and prior to Obama touting his partnership with Lugar in his 2008 presidential announcement speech.
Some Hoosier conservatives trace Lugar’s biggest problem to 1977, when he sold his Indianapolis home to move to Washington, D.C., but kept the local address on his voter registration.
But Lugar’s woes probably started in 2006, when he had no competition for re-election, allowing his political instincts and operation to atrophy.
Lugar was one of three Republicans in the December 2010 lame-duck session to vote to proceed on the DREAM Act, a bill he co-sponsored with Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.). He dropped his support of that immigration bill this Congress, but local conservatives complain it’s too little, too late.
This winter, Lugar aggressively latched on to the Keystone XL oil pipeline, a popular issue with the conservative base. It was a comfortable way by which he could attack the president and placate primary voters.
But whatever momentum Lugar’s team gained from that message was thwarted by its inability to run a nimble election campaign and to anticipate his political vulnerabilities — chiefly his residency issues. He made specific strategic errors and struggled to define Mourdock, as well as his own message.
Forgotten was the tally of nuclear arms Lugar helped deactivate, or the number of presidents who made the Indiana Senator their first phone call when a diplomatic crisis emerged.
“Sen. Lugar made such a tremendous contribution to the country’s foreign policy for so long a time,” Todd said. “Elections are not reward systems. They’re job applications.”
For all of Lugar’s acclaimed efforts overseas, his political future lay in Indiana. And a Senate foreign affairs legend learned the hard way that all politics was, and continues to be, local.
Emily Cadei contributed to this report.