VALPARAISO, Ind. (AP) — President Barack Obama and his presumptive Republican challenger, Mitt Romney, can take a few lessons from veteran Sen. Richard Lugar's loss in Indiana's GOP primary.
Voters are unhappy with incumbents, an ominous sign for the Democratic president in a GOP-leaning state he won four years ago and for nervous lawmakers, many of them running in newly redrawn districts.
Tea party-backed Richard Mourdock's easy win over the six-term Senate fixture also illustrates the deep divide that persists in the Republican base and underscores the thorny task still ahead for Romney, and other GOP candidates hoping the party will unite in time to defeat Obama on Nov. 6.
"We are experiencing deep political divisions in our society right now," Lugar, 80, one of the nation's longest-serving senators, said in a statement after Tuesday's election results were known. "These divisions have stalemated progress in critical areas. But these divisions are not insurmountable."
The loss of Lugar — who boasted of strong conservative credentials but was lambasted by critics for working with Democrats — also highlights the degree to which deal-makers are becoming a rarity on a Capitol Hill often consumed by partisan gridlock. He follows Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, a moderate known for bipartisanship, in leaving the Senate at year's end. Others too, including former Sen. Evan Bayh, D-Ind., have left in recent years.
Ultimately, it was Lugar's efforts to cross party lines and his longevity in Washington — two issues Mourdock used against him — that proved too much for Indiana Republicans.
"Sen. Lugar has sided too many times with the Democrats," Stacy Rutkowski of Valparaiso, who voted for Mourdock, said on her way out of her polling place. "He's been there six terms, and it's time for some new blood."
A few hours after conceding, Lugar slammed Mourdock for embracing "groups whose prime mission is to cleanse the Republican Party of those who stray from orthodoxy as they see it."
"This is not conducive to problem solving and governance," Lugar said. "And he will find that unless he modifies his approach, he will achieve little as a legislator. Worse, he will help delay solutions that are totally beyond the capacity of partisan majorities to achieve."
Broadly, Lugar's defeat may create an opportunity for Democrats working to keep a narrow four-seat majority in the Senate. National party leaders vowed to help centrist Democrat Joe Donnelly, a three-term House member from South Bend, compete against Mourdock, the conservative state treasurer, in a Senate race the party otherwise would have bypassed.
But whether Democrats follow through with that pledge — and go all in for Donnelly by spending large sums of money in the race — is an open question. Indiana has been a hard place for Democrats to win. Four years ago, Obama became the first Democrat to carry the state in a presidential election since 1964, and he did so by a single percentage point, turning out vast numbers from the Chicago-influenced urban and industrial region in Indiana's northwest.
Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee spokesman Matt Canter said the race, with Lugar out, "could move in a more competitive direction." The group and a political action committee that supports Democratic candidates began attacking Mourdock even before the polls were closed. Both described him as out of step with not just mainstream Republicans, but mainstream voters.
Democratic strategist Tad Devine said Mourdock's conservative profile has Democrats optimistic about their chances despite Indiana's Republican trend. Said Devine: "If the Senate race turns out to be a moderate Democrat and an out-of-step Republican, moderate voters who regret that they can't vote for Lugar will help Donnelly."
Republican strategist Phil Musser doubted the state will be in play come the fall.
"Nationally, Democrats will throw a lot of money into it quickly. I'm not one who believes it will be a competitive Senate race," said Musser, a former Romney aide.
The race illustrated vulnerabilities for Democrats and Republicans alike.
Incumbents, Obama included, are at risk no matter their party at a time when the economically struggling public is sour on anyone linked to Washington. So, it seems, are lawmakers with a history of working with members of the opposite party.
Just ask Lugar.
Mourdock hounded the veteran senator over questions about his Virginia home — and Indiana residency — and his longtime Washington ties. The challenger also took Lugar to task over his collaboration with Obama. The two worked together on nonproliferation issues, and Lugar was one of only a handful of Republicans to vote to confirm Obama's two appointments to the Supreme Court.
It wasn't just those issues that didn't sit well with voters, who craved change after nearly four decades of Lugar representing them. That was clear from signs stating simply "retire Lugar" that dotted the roadside along U.S. 30 east of Valparaiso, a Republican-leaning town in northern Indiana.
"He's a good and decent man," Valparaiso Republican Bruce Garrison said of Lugar after casting his vote for Mourdock. "But how can the country keep going on the path it's on? And how can we send the same people back to fix it?"
It's that reject-the-status-quo strain among voters that incumbents up and down the ballot will find themselves having to fight against over the next six months.
That Lugar — an establishment candidate if there ever was one — fell to a tea party-backed Republican made clear that the divisions within the GOP that were on display in 2010 primaries across the country had not yet healed.
"There is an element of the Republican base, and it's stronger than ever now, that was never going to vote for Richard Lugar," said Dan Dumezich, a Lugar supporter from northwest Indiana and Romney's state co-chairman.
The split presents a huge challenge for Romney as he seeks to unify the Republican Party in the coming months.
He has campaigned as the establishment choice, but was beaten badly at times by insurgent favorites, first by former House Speaker Newt Gingrich in South Carolina and later in a series of contests by conservative former Sen. Rick Santorum.
Now Romney is working to mend the rifts. Whether he can — and whether the tea party and other conservatives rally behind him — won't be clear until November.