INDIANAPOLIS — U.S. Sen. Richard Lugar was ousted Tuesday by a tea party-backed challenger in Indiana's Republican primary, abruptly ending the nearly four-decade career of a popular politician who built a reputation as a diplomat but whose critics argued had ceded too much ideological ground to represent a conservative state.
Richard Mourdock, who had lost four other political races before being elected as the state's treasurer, won the nomination after portraying Lugar as too moderate for Hoosiers. Mourdock will face Democratic U.S. Rep. Joe Donnelly in November.
"I hope that Richard Mourdock prevails," Lugar said shortly after polls closed, adding that he would also give his full support behind other Republicans in the race for the White House and Congress.
The senator said the divisions that defined the campaign "are not insurmountable." He called serving in the Senate "the greatest honor of my public life."
The 80-year-old Lugar had never faced a primary challenge in his Senate career and was slow to respond to attacks from conservatives unhappy with his voting record and longevity in Washington. Conservative critics say he did too much compromising in Washington, but changes within his own party contributed to his downfall as Indiana Republicans increasingly turned to new, more socially conservative leaders.
Even before Mourdock was announced as the winner Tuesday, Republicans on Capitol Hill braced for a likely Lugar loss.
"It says if you're an incumbent, you better not lose touch with home," said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.
Though Lugar entered the race heavily favored and much better funded than Mourdock, outside groups poured millions into the race, attacking Lugar on his record. They had a field day with a challenge over whether he was eligible to vote in the state, where he hadn't had a home since being elected to the Senate in 1977.
Lugar said Tuesday that he believed the people behind that cash really "couldn't care less for either of the candidates, Mourdock and myself — they're eager to show their clout, their ability to terminate careers or change the landscape."
"Indiana was the only playground available to demonstrate this," he said. "That's my misfortune to be in sort of a unique situation."
Lugar, the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has long been considered one of the congressional experts on foreign policy matters. He has been a leading voice for a nuclear non-proliferation treaty with Russia and was often mentioned as a potential Cabinet secretary, even in the Obama administration, though he said he wasn't interested.
He's built a reputation as one of Indiana's most popular politicians, winning by wide margins, and was considered so politically untouchable six years ago that Democrats didn't challenge him.
Mourdock, by contrast, lost three races for Congress between 1988 and 1992 and a race for secretary of state in 2002 and wasn't considered a rising star in GOP circles until lately. He was drafted by Gov. Mitch Daniels to fill the Republican Party's spot for state treasurer in 2006 and won re-election to the job in 2010.
Many voters said Tuesday that they backed Mourdock after supporting Lugar for years, citing criticism that Lugar has struggled to shake, including questions over his age, connection to the state, use of attack ads and conservative credentials.
"I voted for him last time, but even then, I thought, 'I wish he had more contact with us here,'" said DeWayne Hintz. "He doesn't seem to remember his roots. He was not in touch with the feelings of the people here. He didn't live here anymore, he spent little time here."
Obama carried Indiana in 2008, partly because of his ties to the populous northwestern part of the state neighboring his hometown of Chicago. Democrats acknowledge it will be difficult to win Indiana again this year. Still, the state could become more hospitable to Obama if the Democrats, believing they have a better chance with Lugar out of the race, spend heavily to compete against Mourdock.
Lugar, who hadn't lost an election since 1974, said he will not run as an independent in November.
"I have no regrets about running for re-election," Lugar said Tuesday. "Even if doing so can be a very daunting task."