Tea-party-backed candidate Richard Mourdock defeated longtime Sen. Richard G. Lugar of Indiana in Tuesday's GOP primary, ending the career of one of the chamber's two senior Republicans and giving Democrats a better chance at capturing the seat in November.
The race was widely seen as a key test of tea party anger against incumbents two years after that same sentiment disrupted a number of Republican races and powered insurgent candidates to wins across the country.
Already, a challenger in Utah said the race is a model for his bid to unseat Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, another veteran senator under fire for his record of trying to work with Democrats in the Senate.
Democrats saw Mr. Lugar's defeat as an unexpected opportunity. Polls show their candidate, Rep. Joe Donnelly, would have lost to Mr. Lugar, but is running neck-and-neck with Mr. Mourdock.
Mr. Mourdock assured supporters that he's ready to take on Mr. Donnelly and said he was grateful to hear earlier that evening from Sen. John Cornyn, Texas Republican and chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, that the national party is committed to his race.
"Mr. Donnelly has been close to Mr. Obama for the last several years," he told his supporters Tuesday night. "We're going to make that clear, and it's not going to be accepted by the voters of Indiana."
The race was called soon after polls closed at 7 p.m., underscoring the ease of Mr. Mourdock's victory over Mr. Lugar, who entered the Senate in 1977. In early returns, Mr. Mourdock led 60 percent to 40 percent.
Mr. Lugar's desperation showed over the past week when he resorted to pleading for voters of all stripes — even Democrats — to support him in the state's open primary.
"I'm appealing to all of the people of Indiana — I emphasize all — to ask for a Republican ballot today and to vote for me," Mr. Lugar told CNN's "Starting Point" as polls opened Tuesday.
After Tuesday's results became clear, President Obama issued a statement on the career of his former Senate colleague.
"Sen. Lugar comes from a tradition of strong, bipartisan leadership on national security that helped us prevail in the Cold War and sustain American leadership ever since," Mr. Obama said. "He has served his constituents and his country well, and I wish him all the best in his future endeavors."
Dark clouds had been gathering over Mr. Lugar for months after tea party groups made the elder statesman, a moderate Republican, their chief congressional target this year.
The GOP primary quickly turned into a nationally scrutinized showdown as the Club for Growth and other Mourdock supporters poured some $3 million into ads lambasting Mr. Lugar for voting for the automakers bailout and tax hikes over his six terms, while groups supporting Mr. Lugar spent half that.
Mr. Mourdock pounded his core message that the 80-year-old senator had turned into a Washington insider, slamming him for living away from Indiana for years, highlighting Mr. Lugar's congenial relationship with Mr. Obama and criticizing the senator for voting to confirm Mr. Obama's liberal Supreme Court nominees.
Suddenly, Mr. Lugar found himself struggling to defend things he once touted as accomplishments; among them, working with Democrats on foreign policy and earning the title of one of the two longest-serving Republicans in the Senate. Mr. Lugar and Mr. Hatch were both first elected in 1976.
The Lugar campaign knew it was in trouble last week when a final poll showed him trailing Mr. Mourdock by a full 10 points, more than undoing the slim lead he had held for the past few months.
Meanwhile, Mr. Mourdock, 60, solidified his status as a tea party darling in recent weeks, pocketing endorsements from former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and sticking to his core message that Mr. Lugar had been in Washington too long.
"Honestly, as I look at our nation's capital, I feel more frustrated with Republicans than Democrats," he told voters at a Lincoln Day dinner on Sunday. But "bipartisanship has taken us to the brink of bankruptcy. It is not bipartisanship we need; it is principle."
Other tea party-backed candidates are striving to overthrow establishment Republicans in Texas and in Utah, where former state Sen. Dan Liljenquist forced Mr. Hatch into a primary in June. In 2010 in Utah, three-term Republican Sen. Robert F. Bennett was defeated by a GOP challenger, Mike Lee, who went onto hold the seat for the GOP.
Mr. Lugar hadn't faced a primary challenger since joining the Senate in 1976, and it showed. He appeared rusty on the campaign trail as he struggled to convince voters that his experience with foreign policy and his ability to work across the aisle were strengths, not weaknesses.
Some analysts said he failed to take Mr. Mourdock seriously soon enough after the Tea Party Express announced last year that it would heavily back the second-term treasurer, giving him an strong initial boost.
Others said he could have done a better job of explaining issues before Mr. Mourdock had a chance to exploit them — such as a question of whether Mr. Lugar could even vote in Indiana, which was eventually resolved when election officials agreed he could register using the address of a family farm.
"It would have been better to just swallow hard on some things, whether it was residency or defending the votes for [Sonia] Sotomayor and [Elena] Kagan," said Ed Feigenbaum, editor of several political newsletters in the state, referring to President Obama's Supreme Court nominees. "And explaining, 'Yeah, maybe it would have looked better if I had had a residency in the state, but I do have the family farm, no big deal.' "
Mr. Lugar did tout his coveted endorsement from popular Gov. Mitch Daniels, a fellow Republican, airing several television ads with the governor praising his experience and reputation as a statesman. But even Mr. Daniels refused to denounce Mr. Mourdock, calling him a "thoroughly credible person who is a friend and ally of mine" last week.
The GOP presidential candidates were also on the ballot for Indiana voters, with 64 percent voting for Mitt Romney and 15 percent backing Ron Paul at press time.
© Copyright 2014 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.