Indianapolis Star: Hoosier Republicans tilt right but say they're still mainstream

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By Mary Beth Schneider

The question was simple: Which Republicans are running as moderates in the November general election?

Indiana Republican Party Chairman Eric Holcomb, fielding the question at a GOP post-election news conference, pursed his lips. He thought. He tilted his head to the side and his eyes to the ceiling. He thought some more.

Gov. Mitch Daniels couldn't take the silence and shouldered past Holcomb to the microphone.

"All of 'em," Daniels said of the GOP candidates chosen in Tuesday's primary election, "if you take moderate to mean mainstream."

But following the primary in which Republicans rejected six-term veteran Sen. Richard Lugar in favor of a tea party favorite, Treasurer Richard Mourdock, "moderate" is not the first word used to describe the Indiana GOP.

And while the party immediately began to rebrand Mourdock as "mainstream," all indications are that in the Indiana Republican Party, the stream is running high on the right bank.

Daniels -- who backed Lugar but is now unreservedly supporting Mourdock -- said that may be true, but only because "mainstream is conservative in Indiana."

Many of the party faithful give a solid "amen."

"We are taking our principles more seriously," said Jim Bopp, a Republican National Committee member who backed Mourdock over Lugar.

A list of reasons contributed to Lugar's loss: his age, 80; his Virginia address; his long absence from Indiana GOP events.

Those dynamics inflated the tide against Lugar, who won only two of Indiana's 92 counties and received only 39 percent of the vote statewide.

But if all those factors had remained true and only one thing were different -- voting record -- Lugar would be the party's nominee, Bopp said.

"Conservatives would have supported a conservative," he said.

Bopp is among many Republicans who said Lugar's votes are why he had a primary opponent for the first time since 1976. They cite his votes for President Barack Obama's Supreme Court nominees, his support for earmarks, his votes for the bailouts under President George W. Bush and his support for the DREAM Act to give children of illegal immigrants a path to citizenship.

That record left the door open for Mourdock.

Pushed out was a senator who has forged bipartisan relationships on nuclear disarmament, immigration and other issues. Welcomed in his place is Mourdock, who said "bipartisanship ought to consist of Democrats coming to the Republican point of view."

His election, some say, speaks volumes about the rightward drift the Republican Party has taken.

Some, like Bopp, applaud the direction. Bopp, in fact, wants to see the Republican Party take a stronger stand to enforce conservative allegiance. In January 2010, he tried to get the party to pass a purity test for candidates, requiring them to meet eight of 10 core principles -- including opposing amnesty for illegal immigrants and opposing economic stimuli packages -- to earn party support.

But former Sen. John Danforth, a Missouri Republican who retired from the Senate in 1994, called Lugar's defeat "a purge."

"It's an attempted purge of the Republican Party by people who are playing some kind of purity test," Danforth said. "It's a loser. You can't win elections unless you get 50 percent of the vote, and I don't know how you can do that if you purge a large portion of the Republican Party."

A GOP disconnect?
Norman Ornstein, a congressional scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, said Mourdock's win and Lugar's defeat "tells you everything you need to know about what's happened to the Republican Party."

Lugar, he said, is a traditional conservative Republican who believes in small government and low taxes.

The battle within the GOP, illustrated in the Lugar-Mourdock race, "is not so much ideology as it is problem-solvers versus uncompromisers. What's happened to the Republican Party, much more than the Democratic Party, is that the problem-solvers are being leeched out and the uncompromisers are being advanced," he said.

Ornstein recently has co-authored a book about this issue with Brookings Institution senior fellow Thomas Mann: "It's Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided with the New Politics of Extremism."

"Thank you, Richard Mourdock," he said with a laugh. "You're going to sell a lot more copies of my book."

Robert Lewis, a retired AT&T manager from Rensselaer who voted for Lugar, found nothing to smile about in Mourdock's win.

"I'm really kind of ashamed of Indiana Republicans for dumping (Lugar) this way," Lewis, a lifelong "middle-of-the-road" Republican, said. "What we really need now in Washington are people who are willing to sit down and compromise and work things out. Mourdock has not indicated that's his goal at all."

Lewis, 78, said he doesn't think the party has become more conservative and intransient but thinks a very conservative faction had a loud voice in a low-turnout primary election. He'll "absolutely" stay a Republican but will consider voting for Democrat U.S. Rep. Joe Donnelly in November or perhaps skipping the Senate race.

George Rubin, a former Republican state senator from Indianapolis, also voted for Lugar, someone he's known since before Lugar was mayor of Indianapolis, and in November will vote for Donnelly.

Rubin said he's been watching the GOP become more conservative for years -- in fact, from his own primary election defeat in 1972 by a candidate he said was "ultra-conservative."

"I was the tip of the iceberg of being run out of the party," he said. "I was the beginning of where they were getting rid of moderates, and it's culminated in what's happened in this election."

Daniels, Holcomb and other GOP leaders disagree, and point to congressional races where the most conservative candidates did not win.

Anne Hathaway, a former Republican National Committee chief of staff, is now helping to run the Richard G. Lugar Excellence in Public Service Series to get more women involved in GOP politics. She said the wins by women, such as former U.S. Attorney Susan Brooks in the 5th Congressional District primary election, are proof.

"The party hasn't moved to the right," Hathaway said. "We're still the party of solutions and trying to solve problems. There are a lot of really good candidates who are conservative but not necessarily far-right wing."

Coveted mainstream
Democrats clearly are hoping that moderate Republicans and independents will see Mourdock as a far-right "tea party extremist." Defining him that way, said Indiana Democratic Party Chairman Dan Parker, is what the campaign will be about.

Donnelly, Mourdock's Democratic opponent, said the campaign is about jobs -- but also says Mourdock's "extremist" policies involved fighting the Chrysler deal that saved Indiana jobs.

Donnelly, who has served in the U.S. House since 2006, called the GOP primary election "a fight for the heart and soul of the Republican Party."

He and Parker said the general election will be for the real mainstream of Indiana: the moderates and independents who want the parties to work together to get things done.

Republicans, though, say Mourdock is mainstream, citing his long history as a GOP candidate and his two statewide wins as treasurer. They were so insistent he is a traditional Republican that it began to offend some in the tea party whose support was vital to Mourdock's success.

Paul "Patriot Paul" Wheeler, an Indianapolis tea party activist, said he showed up at Mourdock's election night celebration wearing his traditional revolutionary war costume, only to be told he should change into a Mourdock campaign T-shirt. The clear implication: the less visible the tea party, the better.

Wheeler later sent out an aggrieved email with the subject line: "GOP kicks tea party to curb in order to rebrand Mourdock."

"We hope that he doesn't forget his beginnings and the backing that he has," Wheeler said.

Mourdock said that hasn't happened and won't.

Since Tuesday's primary, Mourdock said he's been swamped with calls from establishment Republicans, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Sen. John Cornyn, head of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, offering their congratulations and pledging their support.

But, he said, the tea party "is just as important now as they were before. We're going to do everything we can to keep those people as motivated and fired up as we possibly can."

Asked if the party has become more conservative since he first ran and lost in a congressional primary in 1988, Mourdock said that "certainly the people who are willing to go out and work for me did that because of my views. They are more active in the party. So I guess that means yes, maybe the party has become a bit more conservative."

His primary win, he said, is evidence that the tea party has not diminished, and that it will grow even bigger in the Republican Party, not just in Indiana.

The impact nationwide "is huge," he said. "It's, 'My gosh, look what these grass-roots people did in Indiana. Look how these people mobilized to elect a conservative.' Clearly, the tea parties around the country are kind of pumping their chest out, thinking that if they did it in Indiana, they can do it, too."

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