By KASIE HUNT, THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
WASHINGTON -- In a show of conservative enthusiasm, a tea-party backed Republican vanquished six-term Indiana Sen. Richard Lugar in a GOP primary and North Carolina voters decided overwhelmingly to strengthen their state's gay marriage ban.
Republican Mitt Romney, who long has been viewed skeptically by the GOP's base, won three primaries to move closer to clinching the nomination of a party that remains sharply divided between its establishment and right flanks.
The nation's polarized environment was on display in Tuesday contests scattered across several states six months before Americans choose whether to give Democratic President Barack Obama another four years.
That was especially true in Lugar's unsuccessful effort to beat back a challenge from Indiana Treasurer Richard Mourdock, who had painted the Republican senator as too moderate for the conservative state.
"We are experiencing deep political divisions in our society right now. These divisions have stalemated progress in critical areas," Lugar, a Capitol Hill diplomat and a deal-maker, said after an election that marked an end to a nearly four-decade career in the Senate.
Elsewhere, North Carolinians voted to amend their state constitution to define marriage as between one man and one woman, effectively outlawing gay unions through a ballot measure pursued by the right.
Wisconsin Democrats overwhelmingly picked Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett to challenge Republican Gov. Scott Walker in a June recall election. The primary outcome set up a re-match; Barrett lost to Walker in 2010.
The highly charged and hard-fought contests overshadowed Romney's continued progress toward the GOP presidential nomination. He won Republican presidential primaries in Indiana, North Carolina and West Virginia, drawing close to the 1,144 delegates he needs to clinch the nomination. He won at least 63 delegates, with 28 from West Virginia still undecided. He had 919 delegates, 225 shy of what he needs to become the nominee.
The results of Tuesday's far-flung voting gave clues about the state of the electorate – and illustrated the political minefields facing both Republican and Democratic candidates – with the presidential contest well under way. The results were a warning to incumbents. They also highlighted tea party enthusiasm. And, in one state at least, they indicated that wedge issues are still a force even with an electorate focused on economic concerns.
There also was an indication of just how unpopular Obama is in some parts of the country: A man in prison in Texas was getting 4 out of 10 votes in West Virginia's Democratic presidential primary.
Within minutes of Lugar's loss, Democrats were painting Mourdock as too extreme for the state.
Tea party groups were crowing about the win, and Mourdock urged supporters to donate to his general election campaign, saying, "We left everything on the table to win the primary." He will face Democratic Rep. Joe Donnelly in November.
Republicans need to gain four seats to take control of the Senate, and Lugar's loss "gives Democrats a pickup opportunity," said Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y.
Playing out in a conservative state, the race illustrated the electorate's animosity toward many incumbents and anyone with deep ties to Washington. That was clear when Lugar, who hasn't faced questions about his residency in decades, found himself on the defensive over whether he lived in Indiana or northern Virginia. Lugar also was cast as too moderate for the conservative GOP in Indiana, and he took heat for his work with Democrats on issues such as nuclear nonproliferation, underscoring deep polarization in the country as well as a split in the GOP between the establishment wing and the insurgent tea party.
In a statement, Obama praised his former Senate colleague as someone "who was often willing to reach across the aisle and get things done."
The Mourdock vs. Donnelly match-up could develop into a hotly contested race with the potential to affect the White House contest.
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. The state now is on the Obama team's watch list.
In North Carolina, voters moved in the opposite direction from a string of states – Democratic-leaning places such as New York and Vermont as well as conservative Iowa – where same-sex marriage is now legal. Six states and Washington, D.C., now recognize gay unions.
North Carolina law already bans gay marriage, but the amendment on the state ballot effectively slammed that door.
In the days before the North Carolina vote, two top administration officials – Vice President Joe Biden and Education Secretary Arne Duncan – expressed support for gay marriage. Obama supports most gay rights but has stopped short of backing gay marriage.
The Biden and Duncan comments sent the White House into damage-control mode as gay rights advocates pressed for him to publicly support same-sex unions before November. Aides also tried to use the focus on the issue to criticize Romney's equivocations on gay rights over the years.
Obama's campaign said Tuesday that the president was "disappointed" with the state's amendment. Obama's spokesman for North Carolina, Cameron French, called the measure "divisive and discriminatory."
Romney, in turn, has emphasized his position that marriage should be solely between one man and one woman. He has said he supports a federal constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage.
In Wisconsin, voters chose Barrett – one of four Democrats on the ballot – to challenge Walker in the June 5 recall election.
Union rights are dominating the recall. Walker effectively ended collective bargaining rights for most state workers and since then has emerged as a national conservative hero. The recall effort, mounted by opponents of his actions, has dominated the state political landscape – even overshadowing Romney's primary victory there, which essentially ended the nomination fight.
Obama For America N.C. Press Secretary Cameron French
<blockquote>"The President has long opposed divisive and discriminatory efforts to deny rights and benefits to same sex couples. "He believes the North Carolina measure singles out and discriminates against committed gay and lesbian couples, which is why he did not support it. President Obama has long believed that gay and lesbian couples deserve the same rights and legal protections as straight couples and is disappointed in the passage of this amendment. On a federal level, he has ended the legal defense of the Defense of Marriage Act and extended key benefits to same-sex partners of federal employees."</blockquote>
DNC Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz
<blockquote>"The passage of Amendment One in North Carolina is very disappointing. It unfairly singles out gay and lesbian Americans and is discriminatory. I'm proud that President Obama opposed Amendment One, as he has long believed that gay and lesbian couples deserve the same rights and legal protections that straight couples already enjoy. "While the passage of tonight's amendment is disappointing, it does not erase the incredible progress that gay and lesbian couples have made under the President's leadership. From putting an end to the legal defense of the Defense of Marriage Act in the courts and endorsing legislation to repeal it, to making sure that same-sex couples have equal hospital visitation and medical decision-making rights and extending key benefits to the same-sex partners of federal employees, we have taken great strides forward. "The choice is clear. The President has fought on behalf of LGBT Americans while Mitt Romney has supported inequality and discrimination. Romney has said we should write discrimination and inequality into the Constitution, and he has funded efforts in states that have adopted marriage equality to roll back these rights. On this and so many other issues, Romney, like Amendment One, would take us in the wrong direction."</blockquote>
Eric Wolfson, president of Freedom To Marry
<blockquote>"As momentum for the freedom to marry continues to grow in the rest of the nation, today's vote is a painful reminder of what happens when a preemptive ballot-measure is stampeded through before people have had enough time to take in real conversations about who gay families are and why marriage matters to them. This amendment is a last gasp of discrimination that will cause real harm to families, communities, and businesses in North Carolina, but says little about the prospects for a better outcome in battles to come in states where there has been greater visibility for loving and committed couples and those who get to know them. And even in North Carolina, the long-term effect of this nasty attack will be to spur more conversations and open more hearts, helping more people rise to fairness and support for the freedom to marry."</blockquote>
Tony Perkins, Family Research Council
<blockquote>"We applaud North Carolina voters for joining voters in 31 other states upholding the historic and natural definition of marriage as the union of one man and one woman. "At every opportunity, the American people have demonstrated a deep appreciation for the unique benefits that marriage between a man and a woman brings to families and society. They recognize that marriage is the only kind of union that results in natural procreation and keeps a mother and father together to raise the children produced by their union."</blockquote>
Rea Carey, National Gay and Lesbian Task Force
<blockquote>"North Carolina has wandered into treacherous terrain with Amendment One. For all the talk of bolstering families, this measure shamefully shoves them into harm's way. "Blocking loving couples from forming legal unions like domestic partnerships, civil unions and marriage flies in the face of family values. Indeed, Amendment One defies what it means to be a family today. Many North Carolinians, including seniors, single women and children, could be placed in peril because the shrinking definition of family excludes them. Some might even be denied life-saving services like domestic violence protections. This is a brutal step backward for relationship recognition in North Carolina. "We thank all the voters who rejected Amendment One. We stand in solidarity with them and the Coalition to Protect North Carolina Families as they build on this effort to make North Carolina welcoming and safe for all."</blockquote>
North Carolina Democratic Party
<blockquote>"Tonight's results are an unfortunate reminder that the fight for Civil Rights in our state is not yet over. Writing discrimination into our Constitution is wrong. The State Constitution exists to protect the rights of our citizens- not to take them away. Despite this setback, north Carolina Democrats will continue to fight for all of our citizens."</blockquote>