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Robert Bennett: Which party will control the Senate this November?

Published: Monday, May 14 2012 12:00 a.m. MDT

Sen. Richard Lugar hugs Kelly Lugar following a concession speech Tuesday, May 8, 2012, in Indianapolis. Lugar lost his Republican Senate primary on Tuesday to state Treasurer Richard Mourdock.

Darron Cummings, Associated Press

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The national press is playing Sen. Richard Lugar's primay loss in Indiana as proof that the tea party is still a powerful force within the Republican Party. The idea that this may be true delights Democrats, who remember the 2010 contests in Nevada, Delaware and Colorado, the states where tea party insurgents were the Democrats' best friends because they defeated Republicans who would have otherwise won the general election.

If Republicans had won those states, they would have come out of the 2010 election with 50 seats, needing only one more to take control. Since they didn't, they now need a net gain of four to take control. A year ago, with Democrats defending 23 seats and Republicans only 10, a gain of four seats looked easy; now, not so much.

Sen. Olympia Snowe was disheartened enough by the tea party's influence in Republican circles that she announced her retirement, giving Democrats a certain takeaway in Maine. That increased the Republicans' need to five. If Lugar's defeat has indeed opened up Indiana as well, the number goes to six, and, with Republican incumbents in trouble in polls in Nevada and Massachusetts, the number of Democratic defeats needed to bring about a switch could be as high as eight. A recent headline in The Washington Post said, "Democrats optimistic about holding on to Senate majority."

Maybe, but take a closer look. Both Nebraska and North Dakota are Republican states; Democratic retirements there have created solid opportunities for GOP pickups. The Republican incumbents in Nevada and Massachusetts could easily surge and win. There are plenty of close races involving vulnerable Democrats that represent opportunities, and Lugar's defeat was not a replay of 2010, however much FreedomWorks and other tea party activists try to portray it as such.

Lugar was accused of one of the most deadly sins of politics — losing touch with his constituency. His failure to maintain a residence in the state, something that never bothered the voters in previous races, became a symbol of that charge this time. His age also played a role — he is 80, which every retailer knows is a lot older than 79 — and his area of expertise, foreign affairs, is no longer high on the voters' list of current concerns.

Also, the man who beat him, Richard Mourdock, is not a clone of losing 2010 tea party candidates Sharon Angle, Christine O'Donnell or Ken Buck, all of whom were neophytes. Mourdock is an experienced politician who has won statewide races before. He is conservative, yes, but has distanced himself from the tea party and refuses to wear its label. FreedomWorks is taking credit for his win, but it may well have been the other way around — that it was his campaign that made their efforts look successful.

Many national journalists have called to ask me if I see a parallel between Lugar's situtation and Orrin Hatch's. (Full disclosure — I support Hatch.) I don't, really. Yes, they both were elected in the same year; yes, they both have long records that can be attacked; and yes, they both have been targeted by FreedomWorks. But in Utah, the FreedomWorks effort has backfired.

Many delegates to the state convention told me they resented having a group from outside the state trying to tell them how to vote. Hatch is a hardworking campaigner who has traveled the state vigorously and extensively, making himself fully available, and Utahns don't respond well to negative campaigns.

In 2010, the tea party gave the Democrats three Senate seats. In 2012, it looks as if that history will not be repeated.

Robert Bennett, former U.S. Senator from Utah, is a part-time teacher, researcher and lecturer at the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics.

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