Nelson Mandela: A life in pictures
Nelson Mandela and his wife Winnie in this undated file picture.
It sure doesn’t look like Richard Lugar is long for the political world. The news that the major super PAC supporting his candidacy is bailing on him a week before the Republican primary reinforces a growing consensus that the six-term Indiana senator will likely be defeated next Tuesday by his conservative challenger, state Treasurer Richard Mourdock.
Under one scenario, this could be a fortuitous development for Democrats, since Lugar, with his broad popularity outside the Republican Party, would probably defeat the Democratic candidate, Rep. Joe Donnelly, with ease. By contrast, Democrats are hopeful they could exploit Mourdock’s Tea Party politics to turn the state’s swing voters against him – as happened with several high-profile Tea Party-backed candidates in 2010.
That said, Mourdock – unlike, say, Christine O’Donnell or Joe Miller — is an established statewide politician whose public behavior doesn’t easily conform to the image of a kook. And Indiana, even though it narrowly backed Barack Obama in 2008, is a traditionally Republican state that’s expected to land in the Romney column this fall. So there’s a good chance Mourdock will land in the Senate if he prevails next week.
The real significance of a Lugar loss, though, would extend far beyond November. The fact that he’s now fighting for his political life in a GOP primary is a reflection of the endurance of the Tea Party phenomenon. The term itself may feel tired and even dated, a relic from 2009 or 2010, but it’s really just a colorful synonym for “Republican Party base.” And as Lugar’s perilous standing shows, that base is waging the same kind of purity crusade in 2012 that it did in 2010.
The difference is that there are fewer targets this time around, which makes sense: Dozens of Tea Party-aligned Republicans won House seats in ’10, moving the center of gravity in that chamber about as far to the right as it’s ever been. But the bigger success the Tea Party had in ’10 was that it got into the head of every Republican on Capitol Hill. Watching Republican incumbents like Bob Inglis, Bob Bennett and Mike Castle lose out to little-known – and, in some cases, glaringly unqualified – Tea Party-backed challengers, delivered a clear message to Republican lawmakers: If you stray from our absolutist, compromise-phobic stance even once, you’ll be next.
This is why Republicans in the House have charted such a politically suicidal course since winning back the chamber. Traditionally pragmatic conservatives – including Speaker John Boehner – deferred to the purists for fear of being branded sellouts. The situation wasn’t quite as severe in the Senate (especially with Democrats still holding a majority), but individual Republicans there got the message. Olympia Snowe, before walking away in frustration a few months ago, became a far more reliable vote for conservatives in the Obama era. Orrin Hatch ditched his flair for compromise and became a relentlessly harsh Obama critic; it was just enough to save him (so far) from suffering a humiliating defeat at the GOP’s Utah state convention, as Bennett did two years ago.
There’s been less primary season Tea Party activity this year because there’s been less need for it. Lugar is a bit of an exception. Like most of the Tea Party’s previous targets, “moderate” really isn’t the best word to describe his Senate voting record. He’s a conservative and a generally reliable Republican vote, but he does have an independent streak. And to today’s conservative activists, who demand complete, unyielding ideological purity, that’s not enough. So they decided to make an example of Lugar, and they’re well on their way to succeeding.
The real implications of a Lugar loss next week will be psychological: How will watching yet another prominent Republican with a solidly conservative record lose in a primary affect the mindset of average Republican member of Congress? Chances are, it will make him or her even more resistant to taking any action, big or small, that might possibly be construed as ideologically disloyal.
Steve Kornacki writes about politics for Salon. Reach him by email at SKornacki@salon.com and follow him on Twitter @SteveKornacki More Steve Kornacki.
Nelson Mandela and his wife Winnie in this undated file picture.
Mandela is accompanied by his former wife Winnie, moments after his release from prison February 11, 1990 after serving 27 years in jail. (Reuters)
In this February, 1990 photo, shortly after his release from 27 years in prison, Nelson Mandela, gives the black power salute to the 120,000 supporters packing Soccer City stadium in Soweto, near Johannesburg. (AP Photo)
Nelson Mandela showed his passport in February 19, 1990, shortly after his release from prison. The South African government authorized an application for himself and his wife Winnie - (Juda Ngwenya / Reuters)
In this July 27, 1991 photo, Cuban President Fidel Castro, and Nelson Mandela gesture during the celebration of the "Day of the Revolution" in Matanzas, Cuba. (AP Photo)
In this July 4, 1993 photo, President Bill Clinton and Nelson Mandela listen during Fourth of July ceremonies in Philadelphia during which Clinton presented the Philadelphia Liberty Medal to the African National Congress president and South African President F.W. de Klerk. (AP Photo/Greg Gibson)
President of the African National Congress Nelson Mandela acknowledges cheers from the crowd as he prepares to unveil the ANC's official election platform in 1994. (AP Photo/David Brauchli)
African National Congress (ANC) leader Nelson Mandela greeted residents of Mmabatho in March 1994, during a visit after the nominal homeland came under South African control following the ousting of the former President Lucas Mangope. (Reuters/Howard Burditt)
South African President Nelson Mandela smiles with actor Sidney Poitier at a press conference in Cape Town in 1996. Poitier played Mandela in the film "One Man, One Vote" (AP Photo / Sasa Kralj)
South African President Nelson Mandela waves to crowds as he sits next to Queen Elizabeth II in a an open carriage on the way to Buckingham Palace.(AP/Louisa Buller)
Chairman of the Constitutional Assembly Cyril Ramaphosa, left, holds up a copy of the country's constitution which was signed by President Nelson Mandela, in December 1996. (AP Photo / Adil Bradlow / POOL)
Nelson Mandela at a news conference in Johannesburg in February 2000. (AP Photo / Denis Farrell)
South African rugby captain Francois Pienaar, right, received the Rugby World Cup trophy from President Nelson Mandela also wearing a South African rugby shirt, after South Africa defeated New Zealand in the Rugby World Cup , in 1995. (AP Photo / Ross Setford)
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