When Republicans Eat Their Own
May 1, 2012 | by Lou Dubose
Senator Richard Lugar has probably read the script for his current primary campaign in Rule and Ruin, Geoffrey Kabaservice’s remarkable recent book about the Republican Party’s 50-year descent into extremism.
Kabaservice concludes his book with an account of Mike Castle’s final run for public office, when the Delaware congressman was confronted by the same right-wing forces and money now brought to bear on Lugar in Indiana.
Castle had been twice elected governor of Delaware, then served for nine years as the state’s single, at-large representative in the U.S. House of Representatives. He had universal name-identification in Delaware, was highly regarded among Republicans and Democrats on the Hill, and was such a formidable candidate for the U.S. Senate that no first-string Democrat filed to run against him. In a normal election year, Mike Castle would have won the nomination and started the race with a comfortable lead over his Democratic opponent.
2010 wasn’t a normal year.
The Republican Party was being tempered by the white-hot anger of the Tea Party, and Castle was deemed too moderate by the right-wing insurgents. The inevitable campaign against him was driven by the California-based Tea Party Express, which contributed $200,000 to Castle’s opponent, Christine O’Donnell, an anti-masturbation advocate and a talk-television curiosity.
The Tea Party, O’Donnell, and South Carolina Senator Jim DeMint ended Mike Castle’s political career and made Democratic dark horse Christopher Coons a United States senator.
The same story is being played out again in Indiana, where the 80-year-old Richard Lugar embodies everything an earlier Republican Party would have celebrated. He was an Eagle Scout, a Rhodes Scholar, a Naval officer who served as the chief intelligence briefer for the Chief of Naval Operations, and is the institutional memory of his party on arms control.
To learn how a party discards 36 years of experience—and what will be the chairmanship of either the Foreign Relations or Agriculture Committee should the Republicans take the Senate—watch the big tea party that ends at 7 p.m. on May 8, when the polls close in Indiana.
The conservative brief against Lugar? He collaborated with Democrats to pass the Strategic Arms Treaty in 2010; voted for President Obama’s Supreme Court nominees and Bush’s bank bailout; and failed to stop earmarked spending. One issue that stuck is his residence in McLean, Virginia. He owns a farm in Indiana, to which he recently transferred his Indiana residency, but has been billing taxpayers for hotels when he returns to Indiana.
In the current political climate, in which bipartisan compromise is perceived as weakness, even the Nunn-Lugar program that Lugar and Democratic Senator Sam Nunn designed and advanced—to dismantle 7,500 Soviet nuclear weapons once aimed at the United States—might be considered a liability.
The rules of the game have changed since 2010. The Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision in that year allows corporations and organized labor to spend unlimited sums of money on issue campaigns.
In only two weeks in April, the Club for Growth spent more than $250,000 on radio and TV ads attacking Lugar. The Club is a national corporate-money combine focused on lower taxes, the repeal of the estate tax, privatizing Social Security, and other corporate-right initiatives.
In 2010, it helped elect its past president Pat Toomey to the Pennsylvania Senate seat previously held by Arlen Specter. It helped elect Wisconsin governor Scott Walker, then invested $1 million defending Walker’s campaign to enact laws stripping public employees of their collective bargaining rights.
And it intends to spend $1.8 million to support Richard Mourdock, the state treasurer and Tea Party candidate, according to Indianapolis journalist Brian Howey. The Club is the leader of a pack of advocacy groups and their superPACs, which includes:
• FreedomWorks, which is run by former Republican Majority Leader Dick Armey and has underwritten and co-opted the Tea Party movement.
Senator Jim DeMint, who is fueling the purity primaries, gave the Club for Growth $500,000 in March, according to campaign-finance filings released by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
With money pouring in from outside groups, Mourdock’s inability to raise funds is irrelevant.
Lugar and two superPACs backing him are expected to spend more than $3 million, and a poll sponsored by Howey Politics and DePauw University had him extending his lead to 42–35 in late March.
Democrats have joined the Republican attack on Lugar because polling shows that Mourdock is a weaker candidate against Congressman Joe Donnelly in November.
Yet if Richard Lugar is defeated, it will be because the Republican Party has again cannibalized one of its own.