By Peter E. Feltman
An excellent way to understand why voters sent Senator Richard Lugar (R-Indiana) packing by a 20-point margin after 36 years in office is to read his own news releases. A review of these makes clear that Lugar had little focus on Indiana issues, while he worked a great deal on foreign affairs.
He now joins the elite group of former chairmen of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee whose careers ended with ballot box defeats. This club includes two Rhodes Scholars, a former head of Bell & Howell, and the force behind one of the Senate’s legendary investigative committees. William Fulbright (D-Arkansas), Frank Church (D-Idaho) and Charles Percy (R-Illinois) all had long and distinguished careers, but as Tip O’Neill said, “All politics is local.” Hard work on the world stage is not enough to impress voters who are concerned about local issues. Percy’s 1984 loss provides the best example of where Lugar went wrong.
Press releases as a leading indicator
A review of Lugar’s press releases from the first four months of 2010 and then from the same time period in 2012 – when it finally became clear that Lugar faced a serious challenge this year – show a distinct trend away from foreign affairs and toward local Indiana issues. In 2010, Lugar promoted his foreign relations activity. In 2012, he discussed all the meetings he was having with Indiana voters.
According to the senator’s own website, in 2010 Lugar’s office issued 101 press releases, of which 33 were exclusively on foreign affairs. The second biggest topic was a list of grants to fire departments, accounting for 16. These grants were the result of a Department of Homeland Security program and Lugar did not attempt to take credit for securing the grants for Indiana. Most senators claim credit for similar grants in their states. Ten news releases dealt with local issues, four with energy, four with agriculture. There is only one mention of a meeting with Indiana constituents, which was with veterans and Lugar’s staff (not Lugar!). What is missing is a sense of anything especially for Indiana.
Lugar did tout $5 million in federal funds for Indiana airports, but, unlike most other senators, he did not take credit for securing the funds. The only other accomplishment mentioned is the delivery of 4,600 books from the Lugar Community Center to an elementary school. Lugar’s press releases gave ample discussion to Haiti, which was the subject of seven of the 101 statements. He issued releases when he met with Chili’s president, honored Poland’s president, discussed Turkey and Ukraine, and urged the United States to follow Norway’s transparency example on oil and gas revenue. Surely, Norway’s disclosure of its natural resources was of little interest to Indiana voters. Incidentally, Michael Dukakis had his own Scandinavian moment and was later ridiculed for devoting so much time to Swedish public policy planning, which was of limited to no interest to Massachusetts and U.S. voters.
A Radnor prediction comes true
Lugar changed tack in January, 2012, when it finally became clear to him that he had a race on his hands. (Incidentally, in December 2010, Radnor Reports stated that “If Senator Richard Lugar seeks reelection in 2012, expect him to be the underdog to any credible challenger, in either the primary or general election. He is unprepared for a challenge and has lost touch with average Hoosiers while cultivating foreign heads of state and other international dignitaries.”)
Of the 107 news releases this year, 18, the biggest topic, refer to meetings with constituents, such as mayors, college presidents, service members and students. The Keystone Pipeline garnered 14 releases, 14 were on agriculture, a substantial jump from the four in 2010, and 11 on energy. Foreign affairs were still near and dear to Lugar’s heart, accounting for 12 releases, down from 33. A sense of accomplishment for Indiana was still slight, although somewhat more evident. Lugar noted that the Department of Labor withdrew labor regulations that farmers opposed. Lugar had supported legislation that would have forced the withdrawal of these regulations. He also congratulated Ball State University on the dedication of a geothermal project, but there is no mention of what role, if any, Lugar played in the project. If he helped secure funding for the project, it is not in the news release.
Lugar’s defeat is reminiscent of the 1984 Senate race in Illinois, when Paul Simon defeated 18-year Senate veteran Chuck Percy, a Republican. Percy chaired the Senate Foreign Relations Committee during President Reagan’s first term. Reagan won Illinois in 1984 with over 56 percent of the vote, but Percy was unable to ride the Reagan wave, and fell to Simon by a 2.6 percent margin.
Senators do not learn by example
Like Lugar, Percy was perceived as out-of-touch. My co-workers in the office of Senator Alan J. Dixon of Illinois in the 1990s talked about how Senator Percy would excuse himself from constituent meetings, saying he needed to speak with the Dalai Lama or another dignitary. Percy had an impressive Rolodex, even for a senator, but he lacked contact with his home state. My grandmother recalled a Percy event in Rockford, a classic rustbelt city with decaying factories, all the more suffering because of high inflation and Japanese imports. Rockford was also home to medical facilities, a few growing defense contractors and an auto plant. The gathered corporate executives and union officials were asked about “the crops.”
While Rockford is within a hop, skip and jump of farms and dairies, its voters had more than agriculture on their mind. The crops may have been fine, but Rockford was not – nor was Percy’s understanding of Illinois’ second-largest city. Disenchantment with Percy was so great that many of the voters who sent Reagan, himself an Illinois native, back for a second term also voted for a polar opposite, Paul Simon, to replace Percy. All the more incomprehensible in Percy’s case was the fact that he was warned early; he narrowly won reelection in 1978 against a newcomer as newspapers and other media accused him of forgetting about Illinois to concentrate on foreign affairs.
Percy could have looked at his own experience and realized that he was not communicating with the voters. After all, he entered office by defeating another prominent Senator, Paul Douglas. Douglas was a Roosevelt-era new dealer and Ph.D in economics with a notable career. He was the co-creator of the well-known Cobb-Douglas production function, a staple of economics. Douglas recognized his expertise was not enough and that he needed to better serve his constituents. In the same year that Percy emerged as a strong challenger, Douglas championed legislation to help keep Illinois banks competitive despite restrictive state laws on bank branching (the Douglas Amendment to the Bank Holding Company Act.). Many believe that Douglas would have won reelection were it not for the sympathy vote that Percy received after a family tragedy – one of his daughters was murdered – less than two months before the election.
What is it about the Foreign Affairs Committee?
Foreign affairs are far from a senator’s home state. Foreign affairs are important, to be sure, but politicians need to do more, especially in a bad economy. The successful will keep in mind that they need to take care of their constituents, which will give them the freedom to follow their foreign affairs interests. Senator William Fulbright, like Lugar a Rhodes Scholar, was in only his second year with the Senate when Congress created his eponymous fellowship. Yet he lost touch with Arkansas and ended up losing the 1974 primary to Dale Bumpers, gathering only about 35 percent of the vote.
Frank Church, the last Democrat to serve as a Senator from Idaho, led the Church Committee investigation into the CIA and FBI in the post-Watergate years. He was one of President Carter’s key allies in the transfer of the Panama Canal. Reagan’s coattails did Church in during the 1980 election. Reagan took over 66 percent of the vote, while Church was less than one percent behind the Republican winner. Would Church have returned to the Senate if Reagan had received only 60 percent of Idaho’s vote?
Lugar didn’t follow the recent examples of Senators John McCain and Orrin Hatch, either. McCain faced a challenger from the right just two years after running for president. He left nothing to chance, fought hard from the start and won easily. Hatch saw Robert Bennett tossed out of the Senate two years ago, and worked hard in Utah to avoid the same fate. While we won’t know for sure until June when the Republican Party names its candidate, Hatch seems poised to win a seventh term.
Previously, Lugar had been described as “unbeatable.” Two big city mayors who were often described the same way, Richard Daley of Chicago and Marion Barry of Washington, D.C., took no chances. They were famous for arranging buses to transport voters to the polls. The short trips became community events where people talked, joked, ate and drank on their way to and from the polling place. Popular, yes, but these politicians won by hard work. No politician is unbeatable unless he or she makes it that way through hard work and contact, contact, contact with the voters.