DANFORTH FEARS GOP MAY REACH POINT ‘BEYOND REDEMPTION’…. With Sen. Dick Lugar (R-Ind.) inadvertently raising his nation profile lately, the New York Times notes an interesting larger context: the long-time conservative Hoosier isn’t afraid to break party ranks when he thinks it’s important.

Mavericks are not in vogue these days on Capitol Hill, a place where hyper-partisanship and obduracy seem to be their own rewards.

But Senator Richard G. Lugar, an Indiana Republican who played that role long before it had a brand name, is standing against his party on a number of significant issues at a politically dangerous time to do so.

A reliable conservative for decades on every issue, he nonetheless fought President Ronald Reagan — and prevailed — on apartheid penalties and over the Philippine presidential election. He went head to head with Senator Jesse Helms in the 1990s over the nomination of William F. Weld, former governor of Massachusetts, as ambassador to Mexico.

Now, in the heat of the post-primary lame-duck Congressional session, he is defying his party on an earmark ban, a bill that would create a path to citizenship for some illegal immigrants, a military spending authorization bill and an arms control treaty with Russia.

He even declined to sign a brief supporting state lawsuits against President Obama’s health care law because he saw it as political posturing.

Good for him. In an era in which Republican lawmakers too often act like mindless partisan drones, principally concerned with what Rush Limbaugh and Fox News will say about their efforts, Lugar is an old-school statesman — committed to his conservative beliefs, but willing to put national interests above party politics on issues he considers important. I probably disagree with Lugar about 90% of the time, but even I can appreciate the fact that the senator brings some integrity and seriousness of purpose to his work.

For his trouble, Lugar may very well face a primary challenger when he seeks re-election in 2012, a prospect some respected party leaders find chilling.

Former Sen. John Danforth (R-Mo.), who joined the Senate the same year as Lugar, told the Times, “If Dick Lugar, having served five terms in the U.S. Senate and being the most respected person in the Senate and the leading authority on foreign policy, is seriously challenged by anybody in the Republican Party, we have gone so far overboard that we are beyond redemption.”

I’m not sure how much more evidence Danforth would need. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) faced a primary challenger in the 2010 cycle, as did Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and former Republican Arlen Specter in Pennsylvania. In 2012, Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) will very likely face an intra-party challenge of her own.

Hasn’t the contemporary Republican Party already “gone overboard” in targeting members the base considers insufficiently right-wing?

Lugar, meanwhile, seems almost certain to face a primary challenger. A spokesperson for the Indianapolis Tea Party condemned Lugar for his “more moderate” voting record — which seems pretty silly given how conservative he is — and the chair of the Indiana Republican Party added that a primary race appears likely.

Given this, Danforth’s concerns, which are more than reasonable, appear to be based on the fear that the unhinged right may soon completely dominate Republican politics. My only response to the retired senator is, his fears have already been realized.

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Steve Benen

Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.