Once in my life I voted for a Republican. Dick Lugar was that guy. To be fair, the Democratic Party didn’t run a candidate that year, so his only opposition was a loony libertarian, but still, this was that one time. Lugar had brokered a career as a rational, and often bipartisan legislator.
He and Obama worked on a bill to reduce nuclear proliferation while O was in the senate. Unfortunately, after the black guy became president, Lugar tacked hard right and became someone I no longer recognized.
Because I had voted for him once, I received emails, mailers, and even a phone call from his campaign when he ran for re-election. His opposition in the GOP primary was Indiana State Treasurer (and total loon) Richard Mourdock. The kind of guy whose possible election was a thought that could produce vomiting from a decent person. If he beat Lugar, he’d have a better than 50/50 chance of winning the general election in the reddest of midwestern states.
The trouble is, Lugar had echoed tea party talking points in the lead up to the election. His mailers forwarded the heinous “death panel” argument against Obamacare. To put it simply, he had considerably reduced the policy distance between him and Mourdock. Still, I knew there was a risk in not supporting him – at least in the primary. Lugar may have betrayed his principles, but he wasn’t insane, whereas Mourdock was a legit nutter.
There was another side to the equation that election year. The Democratic Party was running Joe Donnelly (finally a viable candidate). I was very familiar with Donnelly. Like me, he was a South Bend resident, and had represented my congressional district for two terms in the House of Representatives. His wife worked at the Notre Dame law school. I even broke bread with them once, at dinner with a mutual friend, just after he had cast his vote for Obamacare in Congress. His wife briefly had to move out of their home due to death threats from those who opposed her husband’s stance on the law. While we had serious differences in policy (he was a “blue dog” dem) I found him to be a decent man and probably the best candidate the Democratic Party could produce for this state.
Still, it would be a heavy lift for Donnelly. There was an element of risk involved in leaving Lugar to dangle in his primary against Mourdock. As bad as Lugar had become, there was no doubt that his opponent was even worse.
Strategically, I knew that if Lugar won his primary, he would likely beat Donnelly in the general – probably with ease. Once away from the more extreme elements in the GOP primary, Lugar’s standing statewide with moderates along with the natural red lean of the state were sure to carry the day.
On the other hand, Mourdock and his extreme views could possibly lose. Though I wasn’t betting on it.
I still had a lot of thinking to do. When given all the givens, I decided that a senator who had turned his back on his own standards was not worth the three-minute trip to my polling place the morning of his primary. If he won the election, his rhetoric would sound more rational than Mourdock’s, but the votes he’d cast would likely be the same. Meaning Lugar’s basic sanity vs Mourdock’s clear lack of it was a distinction without a meaningful difference.
Not only did I not show up for Lugar, I told him why I wouldn’t. I sent him a long screed detailing exactly why I wouldn’t be turning out for him. I never heard back, which only fortified my position.
When the GOP primary votes were tallied, Mourdock pulled the upset. After 36 years in the senate, Dick Lugar would no longer represent the state of Indiana.
In the lead up to the general, Mourdock was ahead in all the polls. Most of them had him up in the 5-7-point range. Despite running a near perfect campaign and being the most centrist of centrist Democrats, Donnelly was not closing the gap.
At their final debate, when asked about the subject of a woman’s right to choose – for reasons that boggle my mind to this day – Mourdock referred to a child born from rape as “a gift from God.”
And then he was cooked.
Donnelly turned a likely loss into a 6-point win, and for the next six years, Indiana, the Mississippi of the Midwest, had a Democrat for a senator.
All this happened because the voting public walked away from Dick Lugar. Granted, most of them were Tea Party members, who flocked to the more extreme Mourdock. But some of them were people like me, folks who couldn’t stand the sight of a “decent” man turning his back on his principles because a black man became president.
I regret that Dick Lugar chose the path he did after Obama was elected. I am sorry for his family and friends that he died today. For most of his career he was a figure worthy of respect. More than most people who went to congress in his time – no matter what side of the aisle they were on.
But I find the career of Dick Lugar to be a cautionary tale. It takes a long time to build up your reputation as a person worthy of respect. It takes a very short time to lose it.
I expect the next few days will bring forth warm memories of the deceased senator. Dick Lugar spent most of his life in the senate as a decent, reasonable man. That’s not how he closed out, though. That matters too – and it needs to be said.