WASHINGTON – The defeat of Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana revealed a streak in the electorate that decries the partisanship and rancor in Washington while helping to ensure it with their votes.
Lugar’s moderate bearings and inclination toward compromise were among the reasons he lost a Republican primary. He fell victim to the same anti-tax tea party fervor that toppled incumbents such as former Sen. Bob Bennett of Utah and prompted Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, to retire rather than serve in a Congress known more for fighting than legislating.
Republican primaries are more dominated by voters who want smaller government, lower taxes and socially conservative policies – and who bother to show up. Because of congressional redistricting, Democrats who call themselves moderates have been winnowed or decided not to run again.
“Regardless of what most Americans voters say about wanting people who will compromise, the dynamic in Republican primaries still can boost a very conservative, non-compromising, tea party-backed candidate against a longstanding conservative,” said Theda Skocpol, a professor of government and sociology at Harvard University. She co-wrote “The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism.”
The fact that Mitt Romney has all but clinched the Republican presidential nomination is probably skewing who votes as fewer Republicans come to polling places to help pick a nominee, she said.
Lugar lost to Indiana state Treasurer Richard Mourdock, 60, who will run in the general election against Democratic Rep. Joe Donnelly, 56.
The Republican nominee has made clear that brokering deals with Democrats isn’t his goal. He and outside groups attacked Lugar for supporting the bank bailout passed in 2008, shepherding nuclear arms treaties through the Senate and voting for Obama’s two Supreme Court nominees.
Mourdock signed a pledge, championed by anti-tax activist Grover Norquist, that he will never vote to raise taxes. Lugar has refused to make such promises.
Mourdock’s campaign platform prevailed, even as polls show high levels of public disgust with a Congress that has accomplished little. A CBS-New York Times poll conducted April 13-17 put public disapproval of Congress’s work at 77 percent, compared with 13 percent who approved. An April 9-12 Gallup poll showed that 79 percent disapproved and 17 percent approved.
Mourdock’s win suggests there is still plenty of support among some Republican voters for an uncompromising approach to governing.
“While there’s a general public concern about gridlock, there’s a core of the Republican base that is not concerned about gridlock and does not want candidates who will compromise on issues,” said Michael Dimock, research director at the Pew Research Center in Washington.
The 80-year-old Lugar, after his loss, said in a statement that Mourdock won’t achieve much as a senator unless he changes course.
“He and I share many positions, but his embrace of an unrelenting partisan mindset is irreconcilable with my philosophy of governance and my experience of what brings results for Hoosiers in the Senate,” Lugar said. “In effect, 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.”
Mourdock said Wednesday on CNN he doesn’t rule out working with Democrats, though the dispute between the parties over the size of government makes it almost impossible.
“One side wants exactly the opposite of the other,” Mourdock said.
The polarization in Congress is an extension of two decades of change that have almost eliminated centrists in both parties, said Gary Jacobson, a political scientist at the University of California in San Diego.
“The parties are now defined much more precisely,” he said. “A main part of the overall trend is the disappearance of conservative southern Democrats and the disappearance of the moderate northeastern Republicans.”
Congressional redistricting contributed, said Michael McDonald, a political scientist at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. In the 1988 presidential election, the vote split was no greater than 52 percent to 48 percent in 161 House districts, he said. That dropped by 2002 to 91 districts with two rounds of redistricting after the 1990 and 2000 censuses.
Safer seats means that more House members can appeal only to their party’s base to win re-election. Lawmakers who tend to work with the other party have retired or lost.
The House Blue Dog coalition, a group of Democrats who favor spending cuts and low taxes, now has 25 members, down from 53 before the 2010 election. Three members announced they’re not seeking re-election this year: North Carolina’s Heath Shuler, Arkansas’s Mike Ross and Oklahoma’s Dan Boren.
Lower primary turnout also is an element, said Curtis Gans, director of the Center for the Study of the American Electorate in Washington.
The percentage of eligible voters participating in primaries decreased from 8.7 percent in 1994 to 7.2 percent in 2006, he said. In 2010, it edged up to 9.7 percent, in what Gans said was an aberration because of the slumping economy and voter dissatisfaction with President Barack Obama’s policies.
“Lower turnout empowers intensity,” Gans said. “It means a very narrow sliver of the overall population can propel people to primary victories.”