The GOP Senate victories of 2010 have made Republicans hungry for additional gains. On paper, they enjoy a big advantage in 2012, because only ten of their seats are up for election, compared with 23 seats of senators who caucus with the Democrats. The GOP is especially eager to seize pickup opportunities in right-leaning states such as Montana, Nebraska, and North Dakota.
Before any red-state Republican can go on the attack, however, a few may find themselves playing defense. If 2010 holds any lesson for incumbents, it’s that conservative voters are willing to mutiny against moderates. Two Republican senators, Robert Bennett of Utah and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, fell to primary challengers. A third, Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, chose to switch parties rather than face GOP voters. All were victims of rivals who harnessed the energies of the Tea Party movement, whose influence is more likely to grow than shrink over the next two years.
At least three Republican senators already must worry about renomination in 2012: Richard Lugar of Indiana, Orrin Hatch of Utah, and John Ensign of Nevada. Two confront questions about their devotion to conservative principles and the third must overcome doubts about his effectiveness and electability. All will likely face credible primary challengers.
A couple of weeks after the 2010 elections, Richard Lugar released a poll to demonstrate his formidability as he seeks a seventh term. It portrayed him as Indiana’s most popular politician, putting his favorability rating at 66 percent — slightly higher than even that of Gov. Mitch Daniels, who is often mentioned as presidential timber. The numbers made the 78-year-old Lugar look like a shoo-in for reelection.
Except that the poll also gave off a whiff of weakness: It tested the popularity of two Indiana Republicans, state senator Mike Delph and state treasurer Richard Mourdock. Their favorability ratings barely registered. Most voters don’t know much about them. By including them in his poll, however, Lugar revealed that he’s anxious to keep tabs on possible primary foes.
Both men are thinking about running against Lugar for the GOP nomination. “People started calling me about it back in September,” says Mourdock. “My response was: ‘What did I ever do to you?’” Since then, however, Mourdock has won reelection to his statewide office with 62 percent of the vote. Then Lugar became one of just eight Republican senators to vote against a ban on earmarks. “That vote showed how much he has drifted away from Hoosier values,” says Mourdock. “Even Evan Bayh voted the right way — and he’s a Democrat.” Bayh is Indiana’s retiring junior senator.
The vote on earmarks is not Lugar’s only post-election apostasy. During the Senate’s lame-duck session, he called for passage of the DREAM Act, which would provide amnesty for illegal aliens who attend college or join the military. More significantly, Lugar used his position as ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to crusade for the New START treaty with Russia. Collaborating with the Obama administration, he helped to push the pact through the Senate before a strengthened and skeptical GOP caucus could get its hands on the agreement in 2011.
These endeavors earned Lugar one of those soft profiles that the New York Times likes to lavish on Republicans who defy conservatives: Lugar, wrote reporter Jennifer Steinhauer, “is standing against his party on a number of significant issues at a politically dangerous time to do so.” The American Conservative Union gives Lugar a lifetime rating of 77 percent, which makes him one of the GOP’s more liberal senators.
State senator Delph says that his serious frustrations with Lugar go back at least as far as the nomination of Elena Kagan to the Supreme Court. Lugar was one of five Republicans who voted to confirm her. “She’s the most liberal justice of my lifetime,” says Delph. “Conservatives should be outraged by her support for partial-birth abortion, but Lugar chose to ignore it.”
In the last election cycle, a former congressman who went on to head the Club for Growth, a political-action committee that supports economic conservatives, ousted a moderate Republican senator: In Pennsylvania, Pat Toomey drove Arlen Specter out of the GOP and then captured the seat Specter had occupied for three decades. Today, the president of the Club for Growth is Chris Chocola, a former congressman from Indiana who questions Lugar’s conservatism. Chocola says he has no interest in running for anything: “I’ve been cured of all political ambition.” Yet he won’t rule out the possibility that his organization will finance one of Lugar’s competitors in a primary. “If Senator Lugar retires, he’ll go down in history as a great statesman,” says Chocola. “But I don’t think he’ll retire, so we’ll see what happens.”