Lugar sees parallels between his fate and Cochran’s in Miss.

BY Domenico Montanaro  June 3, 2014 at 6:44 PM EST

In Mississippi tonight, a veteran lawmaker could be knocked off by a rebel primary challenger. If that sounds familiar, that’s because it is.

Before Sen. Thad Cochran, 76, who is at risk of losing tonight, there was Sen. Richard Lugar in Indiana. Just two years ago, the then-34-year-serving Republican heavyweight lost to Richard Mourdock, a tea-party and outside group-backed conservative.

Former Indiana Sen. Richard Lugar supports his friend, Mississippi Sen. Thad Cochran . Photo from Lugar Center

Former Indiana Sen. Richard Lugar says he supports his friend, Mississippi Sen. Thad Cochran. Photo from Lugar Center

“I believe that it’s very important for the country to have the leadership of Thad Cochran,” Lugar, 82, told PBS NewsHour in a telephone interview.

Lugar and Cochran represent what the Senate used to be — congenial lawmakers, who believed in taking care of their state with federal funding and governing, even if it meant trying to work with the other side. But the Senate is changing. And Lugar does not think it’s for the better.

“Those with extreme views have no apology,” Lugar said. “Someone has to ‘save the country,’ as they see it. It’s very problematic, because it leads to no action and continued disillusionment of the public of the political process and adverse views of the rest of the world of the United States.”

Lugar sees similarities between Cochran’s race — where his challenger is tea party-backed state Sen. Chris McDaniel — and his own.

“I think there are many parallels,” he said, noting that “many of the same national groups” who were against him are spending big against Cochran, too; that he was willing to work with Democrats to get things like the Farm Bill passed; and that he was for “continuity.”

“I always did favor keeping the government open,” he quipped. He called it “reckless to shut down the government to stop spending or take other actions that would influence the budget.”

Lugar was elected to the Senate in 1976, just two years before Cochran. And they got to know each other well while serving together on the agriculture committee, a committee they both chaired at different points.

“We were literally side-by-side,” Lugar described his old friend as a “person of common sense,” who was always “diplomatic and thoughtful.” “These are qualities that need to be supported,” he added.

Lugar lamented that those qualities appear to be growing rarer in the Senate. Too often now debates are “mean-spirited,” he said, adding that there is “a tendency on the part of some Republican members of Congress to utilize an anti-Obama sentiment to attempt to defeat legislation.” It’s something, he said, that is “tactical” rather than thinking bigger.

Lugar served as chairman of the foreign relations committee and was one of the top voices on foreign policy voices in Congress. And while understanding constituent needs and staying in touch with the people a senator represents is important, Lugar stressed being a senator also “requires a degree of scholarship and research and study that goes well beyond the needs of one’s own constituents.”

Unfortunately for the likes of Lugar and Cochran, that is not what is being rewarded in recent GOP primaries.

Mourdock, the man who defeated Lugar in that 2012 primary, went on to lose to current Democratic Sen. Joe Donnelly, in large measure because of controversial remarks Mourdock made about pregnancies from rape being something “God intended.”

Washington establishment Republicans worry that McDaniel could suffer a similar fate and cost Republicans a shot at a Senate majority again.

Lugar, for one, hopes history doesn’t repeat itself.

“I’m very hopeful Thad will prevail,” he said, “and we’re keeping our fingers crossed tonight.”