In a potential reprise of 2010, conservative Republican ideologues somehow seem determined to help the enemy Democrats win seats in the U. S. Senate. You’ll recall what happened two years ago. Republicans had a slam-dunk race in Delaware, with Mike Castle all teed up to win the seat – until the ideologues botched the scenario by handing the GOP nomination to laughable Christine O’Donnell. It was the same deal in Nevada, where Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid was ripe for the picking – until the ideologues botched the scenario by handing the GOP nomination to laughable Sharron Angle.Now the pattern threatens to repeat itself. Maine was an easy GOP keeper until moderate Olympia Snowe summarily announced her retirement and said she was fed up with purity politics; now, the likely winner this fall in Maine is an independent who would give the Republicans fits. Elsewhere, Nebraska appeared to be an easy GOP pickup thus autumn (Democrat Ben Nelson is leaving), but the litmus-test groups are ignoring the most electable Republican, the state’s attorney general, and instead supporting a “fiscal conservative” purist who has lost three previous Senate races. Same thing in purple-state Wisconsin, where the GOP seems poised to snatch the seat now held by retiring Democrat Herb Kohl – but the litmus-test groups are ignoring the electable ex-governor, Tommy Thompson, and boosting a more conservative guy who has twice lost statewide races.Kimberly A. Strassel, a conservative Wall Street Journal columnist, lamented the other day that the purists, by “ginning up divisive GOP primaries,” are making it more difficult for the Republicans to achieve their primary aim: winning control of the Senate chamber. She warned: “Any group messing in a state that ought to be a Republican lock is messing conservative priorities….The question for every conservative in this election is whether the possibility of getting a slightly more ideologically pure senator is worth blowing the chance” of winning back the Senate. Republicans currently hold 47 seats, and have little margin for error if they hope to attain 51.Which brings us to Indiana, arguably the best example of all.Dick Lugar, the popular six-term Indiana Republican senator, is currently fighting for his political life – early voting in the May 8 GOP primary began yesterday – because his occasional forays into bipartisan cooperation have rendered him anathema to the right-wing absolutists. Six years ago, in a bad Republican election year (Bush, Iraq), Lugar won re-election with 87 percent of the vote, and he’s be a cinch for another win this fall. But the absolutists based in Washington (Club for Growth, FreedomWorks, National Rifle Association) are working to knock him off on May 8 and replace him with a right-wing guy who’d be far more vulnerable to a Democratic challenger in November.Put simply, moderate Democratic congressman Joe Donnelly wouldn’t have a prayer against Lugar. But if Donnelly is matched against tea-partying Richard Mourdock, a reclusive geologist who hates the limelight, and whose entire political career consists of 16 months as state treasurer…well, suffice it to say that Donnelly’s prayers would be answered.Club for Growth, which takes pride in knocking off Republican incumbents it deems insufficiently pure, today launched a new radio ad against Lugar, telling Indiana primary voters: “Dick Lugar might be a statesman, but he’s not a conservative.” That message neatly encapsulates where we are today, as a political culture: It’s now considered bad to be a statesman. In today’s Senate, there’s apparently no room for that sort of person anymore.Lugar has been devoted for decades to the issue of nuclear arms control. The problem is, success on that crucial security issue can only be achieved by (gasp) working across party lines – which he did many years ago with Democratic Senator San Nunn, and which he did, far more recently, with another Democratic senator, Barack Obama…Bingo! Cue the right-wing ads that currently tag Lugar as “Obama’s favorite Republican.” Another big sin is that Lugar voted for Obama’s two Supreme Court nominees (that used to be a common bipartisan practice); plus, he voted for the government rescue of Wall Street and the auto industry. On the other hand, Lugar is resolutely anti-abortion, he opposed Obama’s economic stimulus, he opposed Obamacare, he has endorsed Paul Ryan’s right-wing budget plan, he has endorsed the Keystone XL oil pipeline plan – but apparently none of that is good enough for the ideologues. Apparently they’d rather put Indiana in play for the Democrats.But Lugar himself is still very much in play. His in-state financial and political network is vast. He has a lot more money than Mourdock, who by circumstance has been forced to rely on the broadcast clout of those outside purist groups. And that very fact has given Lugar a potent issue. Lugar is 80 years old, but clearly hip to the potency of negative advertising. He’s painting himself as the true parochial Hoosier, running ads that assail “Mourdock and his D.C. cronies,” and warning that “Mourdock has already sold out to D.C. outsiders.”That’s a bit rich coming from Lugar, who has been living in tony McLean, Virginia since 1977, but, who knows, he just might be able to help save the contemporary GOP from its worst absolutist tendencies. And to strike a blow for the apparently archaic notion that, every once in awhile, it might be wise to reach across the aisle.
Breaking news this afternoon: Rick Santorum has pulled the plug on his quixotic candidacy, rather than risk being embarrassed by a defeat in his home state. (Remember how he boasted during the debates about twice winning Senate races in a swing state? Never mind.) And Mitt Romney immediately benefits from his departure, saving the $3 million that Mitt was set to spend on attack ads in Pennsylvania. I’ll do a proper Santorum euology here, early tomorrow.——-Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1