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Lugar loss could make Indiana Senate race more competitive

By Paul Steinhauser, CNN Political Editor
updated 1:43 PM EDT, Wed May 9, 2012
  • Democrats hoped to run against Mourdock, who they say is too "extreme"
  • Mourdock defeated Lugar, GOP's longest-serving senator, in primary
  • Cook Political Report moved the race from "likely" GOP win to leaning that way
  • Democrats hope disillusioned Lugar backers will cross lines

Washington (CNN) -- With longtime Republican Sen. Dick Lugar going down in defeat, Democrats were quick to paint the conservative candidate who beat him in Indiana's primary as "too extreme."

The result in Indiana was what Democrats had hoped for, but as the old proverb goes: "Be careful what you wish for, it might just come true."

Lugar is the longest-serving Republican in the Senate and is known as a moderate who has been willing to reach across the aisle to work with Democrats during his 36 years in the chamber. He was defeated by more than 20 points in Tuesday's primary by Richard Mourdock, the two-term Indiana state treasurer, a much more conservative candidate who enjoyed strong backing from local and national tea party groups, as well as some other leading fiscal conservative organizations.

Mourdock says he doesn't anticipate successful compromise in the Senate and hopes bipartisanship will be defined as Democrats backing the Republican agenda following the 2012 elections.

"I hope to build a conservative majority so bipartisanship becomes Democrats joining Republicans to roll back the size of government, reduce the bureaucracy and get America moving again," Mourdock said Wednesday morning on CNN's "Starting Point with Soledad O'Brien."

He added that those on both sides of the aisle should not compromise their principles, saying that "one side or the other has to win this argument, one side or the other will dominate."

Minutes after Mourdock's victory over Lugar, national Democrats were quick to characterize Mourdock as too extreme for Indiana.

"Richard Mourdock is a right wing Tea Party ideologue who questioned the constitutionality of Medicare and Social Security, says there should be more partisanship and less compromise in Washington, and actually compared himself to Rosa Parks," declared Guy Cecil, the executive director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, in a statement.

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"Tens of thousands of Hoosiers who have voted for Dick Lugar their entire voting lives are going to reject a Tea Party candidate like Richard Mourdock and support an honest, common sense job creator like Joe Donnelly," added Cecil.

Donnelly, the Democrats' Senate nominee, is a former small business owner and current three-term congressman who represents Indiana's second district, which includes South Bend and other areas of the north-central part of the state.

Cecil compared Mourdock to Ken Buck, the former Weld County, Colorado, district attorney who defeated the more moderate former Lt. Gov. Jane Norton in Colorado's 2010 GOP Senate primary then went on to lose his general election challenge to Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet.

National Democrats hope that Donnelly will fare better against Mourdock than he would have against Lugar in a general election, where moderate voters from both parties and independents are crucial in determining who wins and loses.

National Republicans quickly rallied around Mourdock.

Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said in a statement that Mourdock "has the NRSC's full support and we are committed to helping elect him as Indiana's next U.S. Senator in November."

And Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said he fully backs Mourdock and looks "forward to welcoming him to the United States Senate next year."

Freshman Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, a darling of conservatives, sent an e-mail to his fundraising list Tuesday night, asking people to donate to Mourdock's campaign.

While Republicans rally around Mourdock, Democrats have the match-up they dreamed about in Indiana. They suggest that many "disillusioned" Lugar supporters may now cross over and vote for Donnelly. And Cecil said that the Mourdock victory over Lugar "makes the Indiana Senate race a toss-up."

But that's not the take right now from two of the top non-partisan political handicappers. The Rothenberg Political Report is keeping its ranking of the contest as "Lean Republican."

"Richard Mourdock isn't Christine O'Donnell," says Stuart Rothenberg, the report's editor and publisher. O'Donnell was the tea party-backed candidate in Delaware who pulled an upset in the state's 2010 GOP Senate primary, defeating longtime Rep. Mike Castle, the GOP establishment candidate. O'Donnell lost by 16 points in the general election to Democrat Chris Coons.

"While a Mourdock-Donnelly race will start off close, with some Republicans bitter over Dick Lugar's loss, over the long haul, Democrats have a decidedly uphill fight in this Republican-leaning state," Rothenberg added.

The Cook Political Report is moving its rating of the race from "Likely Republican" to "Lean Republican."

"This race is more competitive than it would have been if Lugar were the GOP nominee. We don't feel that it's in the toss up column now, but there's a potential to get there," saysJennifer Duffy, who covers Senate races for Cook.

Then-Sen. Barack Obama won Indiana in 2008, the first Democrat to capture the state in a presidential election in 40 years. But Obama's re-election campaign may not spend a great amount of money and resources to try to keep the state in the "D" column this November, further complicating the Democrats' hopes of capturing Lugar's Senate seat.

As for the big picture, the Democrats currently hold a 53-47 majority in the Senate. But they are defending 23 of the 33 seats up for grabs in November.

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