INDIANAPOLIS — U.S. Sen. Richard Lugar was ousted Tuesday by a tea party-backed challenger in Indiana's Republican primary, abruptly ending the nearly four-decade career of a popular politician who built a reputation as a diplomat but whose critics argued had ceded too much ideological ground to represent a conservative state.
Richard Mourdock, who had lost four other political races before being elected as the state's treasurer, won the nomination after portraying Lugar as too moderate for Indiana. Mourdock will face Democratic U.S. Rep. Joe Donnelly in November.
The 80-year-old senator called serving in the Senate "the greatest honor of my public life." Shortly after polls closed, he threw his support behind Mourdock and said he also would support other Republicans running for Congress and the White House.
"We are experiencing deep political divisions in our society right now," Lugar said. "These divisions have stalemated progress in critical areas. But these divisions are not insurmountable, and I believe that people of goodwill, regardless of party, can work together for the benefit of our country."
Lugar's willingness to compromise and to broker deals — qualities that made him an effective statesman and senator for nearly 36 years — had become a liability among some Indiana Republicans, who have turned to a new, more socially conservative generation of leaders.
The possibility of Lugar losing — let alone in a primary race — once seemed unthinkable. He had never drawn a primary challenge until Tuesday and was considered so politically untouchable six years ago that no Democrat even bothered to mount a challenge.
"I know what it's like to lose. It's not fun," Mourdock said Tuesday in an interview with The Associated Press. "And especially after he's given that 36 years in the Senate. I know he has to feel terrible tonight, and I truly feel badly for him."
Mourdock said he read the election results as a vote for his candidacy, not against Lugar's.
As the leading Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Lugar has long been considered one of the Congress' experts on foreign policy. He is a leading voice for a nuclear non-proliferation treaty with Russia and has often been mentioned as a potential Cabinet secretary. During a 2008 presidential debate, then-candidate Barack Obama suggested even he might consider the Indiana senator for a job in his administration.
That was too much for tea party Republicans and other conservatives who have shunned compromise with Obama and other Democrats.
While Mourdock claimed the conservative credentials to better represent the state, his history as a candidate had been shaky. He lost three races for Congress between 1988 and 1992 and a race for secretary of state in 2002 and wasn't considered a rising star in GOP circles until lately. He was drafted by Gov. Mitch Daniels to fill the Republican Party's spot for state treasurer in 2006 and won re-election to the job in 2010.
Though Lugar entered the race heavily favored and much better funded than Mourdock, outside groups poured millions into the race, attacking Lugar on his record.
They also had a field day with a challenge over whether he was eligible to vote in the state, where he hadn't had a home since being elected to the Senate in 1977. Lugar, who hadn't faced questions about his residency in decades, suddenly found himself on the defensive over whether he lived in Indiana or northern Virginia.
Lugar said Tuesday that he believed the people behind that cash really "couldn't care less for either of the candidates, Mourdock and myself — they're eager to show their clout, their ability to terminate careers or change the landscape."
"Indiana was the only playground available to demonstrate this," he said. "That's my misfortune to be in sort of a unique situation. They've got to manage to terminate somebody so that these people who pay their big salaries know that they're worth something."
Todd Woodmousee, a Democratic precinct committeeman, said an "amazing number of people who lean left," including Democrats and gay voters, had turned out to vote for Lugar, though it wasn't nearly enough for the incumbent to survive the challenge.
Many voters, however, said Tuesday that they backed Mourdock after supporting Lugar for years, citing criticisms that had never mattered before but that he struggled this time to shake, including questions over his age, connection to the state, use of attack ads and conservative credentials.
Lugar said Tuesday he can't do anything about his age, but he noted he still runs in charity road races and feels fit to serve another term. But the court fight over whether Lugar was even eligible to vote in the state convinced many voters that he'd lost touch with his Indiana roots.
"I voted for him last time, but even then, I thought, 'I wish he had more contact with us here,'" said DeWayne Hintz. "He doesn't seem to remember his roots. He was not in touch with the feelings of the people here. He didn't live here anymore. He spent little time here."
Obama carried Indiana in 2008, partly because of his ties to the populous northwestern part of the state neighboring his hometown of Chicago. Democrats acknowledge it will be difficult to win Indiana again this year. Still, the state could become more hospitable to Obama if the Democrats, believing they have a better chance with Lugar out of the race, spend heavily to compete against Mourdock.
Lugar, who hadn't lost an election since his first Senate race in 1974, said he will not run as an independent in November.
"I have no regrets about running for re-election," Lugar said in conceding defeat Tuesday. "Even if doing so can be a very daunting task."