Retiring Senate centrists creating headaches for their party leaders

The bruised feelings of retiring Senate centrists have created headaches for Republican and Democratic leaders who are trying to keep control of their seats.

Sens. Dick Lugar (R-Ind.), Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) are staying aloof from the battles for the seats they are vacating, giving challengers a better chance of flipping them.

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Political experts say Lugar and Lieberman could make significant differences in the neck-and-neck races for their seats.

The contest for Snowe’s seat is less competitive but she could give a strong boost to GOP candidate Charlie Summers by actively campaigning for him.

After Lugar lost to Richard Mourdock in the Senate Republican primary, he endorsed his former opponent. But Lugar has since declined to campaign for Mourdock.

“I made no commitments with regards to the campaign,” Lugar told the Indiana Barrister.

“I’ve not been a factor in the campaign and do not intend to do so.”

Had Lugar won the primary, he would have been considered a safe bet to win reelection.

Polling during the primary showed him leading Democratic candidate Joe Donnelly by 20 points.

Lugar was left frustrated by his loss in a low-turnout primary election, which was dominated by the most conservative Republican voters.

Mourdock’s weak support among centrist Republicans has emerged as one of the biggest stumbling blocks to his campaign.

“It’s obvious that the Lugar voters are the key here,” said Peri Arnold, professor of political science at Notre Dame University.

“If [Lugar] had fully embraced and done some campaigning for Mourdock, it would have put a stamp of acceptability on Mourdock. The fact that he has been so lukewarm has peeled off some support.”

Margie Hershey, a political science professor at Indiana University, said: “Lugar Republicans are critical to Mourdock’s chances, and it would certainly make a difference if Lugar campaigned actively for Mourdock.”

A Howey/Depauw Indiana Battleground Poll released in late September showed Donnelly leading Mourdock, 40 percent to 38 percent.

In Connecticut, Democrats’ efforts to keep control of Lieberman’s seat have been hurt by his refusal to endorse or campaign for Rep. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.).

Lieberman, a longtime Democrat, left the party after losing the 2006 Democratic primary to Ned Lamont when liberals revolted over his pro-Iraq war stance.

But while he won reelection as an independent, Lieberman still caucused with Democrats.

Lieberman was never close to Democratic Party leaders in his home state. But the 2006 primary, and Lieberman’s subsequent support of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in the 2008 presidential campaign, killed the relationship altogether.

Lieberman remains popular with independents, who dominate the state’s voter roles, as well as with centrist Republicans and conservative Democrats.

Ronald Schurin, an associate professor of American government and politics at the University of Connecticut, said Lieberman’s endorsement would make “a significant difference” in the race.

Lieberman has said he will not endorse either Murphy or Republican candidate Linda McMahon.

But he has pledged to work with the winner to smooth their transition to the Senate.

Lieberman also stayed away from both parties conventions after playing a prominent role in the 2000 Democratic convention as Al Gore’s running mate, and in the 2008 GOP convention as a prominent McCain supporter.

Tensions between Lieberman and Democrats ran so high after the 2008 election that party leaders considered stripping him of his chairmanship of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

“Lieberman has a personal following. Witness the fact that he won last time,” Schurin added, noted that Lieberman won as an independent in 2006, a rare feat in Senate races.

Bad blood between Lieberman and the Democratic Party has spoiled the chance for him to help Murphy.

“Lieberman and the Democratic establishment here have kind of cut each other dead. Lieberman’s picture used to hang in the Democratic headquarters. It doesn’t anymore,” Schurin said.

A Quinnipiac poll released earlier this month showed McMahon up by a 1-point, but a more recent Rasmussen Reports poll showed Murphy with a 5-point lead.

In Maine, Snowe has said she will not campaign for Summers because he refused to endorse her in a potential Republican primary matchup earlier this year.

Snowe skipped a National Republican Senatorial Committee fundraiser for Summers earlier this month, despite being listed as a co-host.

Snowe’s staff said she was attending a gala in Augusta honoring her mother-in-law.

Amy Fried, a political science professor at the University of Maine, said Snowe could change the race by campaigning for Summers.

“It certainly could make some difference,” she said. “Her status and reputation continues to be very high in the state.”

The NRSC has spent close to $1 million on television ads attacking the frontrunner, independent candidate Angus King, a former governor who is expected to caucus with Democrats if he wins.

Polls showed Summers had gaining ground on King in September, but his momentum appears to have slowed more recently.