In Richard Lugar defeat, a tea party road map for revamping Washington?

Six-term Sen. Richard Lugar (R) of Indiana lost by a landslide to a tea party-backed challenger in Tuesday's GOP primary. The outcome buoys the tea party movement nationally, but some say Lugar's problems were unique to him.

By , Staff writer

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    Sen. Richard Lugar reacts after giving a speech Tuesday, May 8, in Indianapolis. Lugar lost his Republican Senate primary on Tuesday to state Treasurer Richard Mourdock.
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The landslide defeat of veteran Sen. Dick Lugar of Indiana by Richard Mourdock, a Harley-riding, tea party hardliner, in Tuesday’s Republican primary is convincing evidence that the tea party movement is alive and kicking – and is perhaps, too, a direct repudiation by GOP voters of "establishment" politics.

Of course, Mr. Mourdock’s come-from-far-behind victory is in part a tale about Senator Lugar, a six-term veteran so comfortable in his role as a revered and mostly unchallenged senior statesman that he neglected to maintain a residence in his home state.

But the senator’s ouster, by 20 percentage points, at the hands of a two-term state treasurer is also a barometer of the dour national mood. And that mood is embodied, at least in part, by the three-year-old tea party movement, which has largely abandoned its street protests and become, as Indiana tea party activist Anna Kroyman suggests, “a stealth movement.” 

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Mourdock’s win is likely to energize the populist antitax movement, which some political observers had deemed to be in decline after the 2010 elections. Lately, its aim has been to put pressure on establishment Republicans in Washington to rein in deficit spending in Washington and not to give ground on that front to Democrats.

“Average Americans see a system that’s not working and that used to work,” says Gerald Wright, a political scientist at Indiana University, in Bloomington. “They look around now and everything is crumbling: We’re becoming less of a world power, the debt, the kids can’t get jobs, they’re moving back in after college. The tea party has given them a little more depth and feel for the larger forces that are leading us.”

Lugar outspent Mourdock by a 3-to-1 margin, but Mourdock prevailed with his ground game, built largely on tea party precinct captains and door-to-door canvassing. Mourdock himself logged nearly half a million miles crisscrossing Indiana, sometimes talking to groups of just a dozen people at a time. 

That effort – combined with support from the National Rifle Association, the national tea party-backed Freedom Works, and the small-government-minded Club for Growth – drove home the point that Lugar, widely considered a solid Republican, is out of touch with Indiana (epitomized by the fact that he stayed in hotels while in the state). He also came under attack as too willing to compromise with Democrats on issues ranging from foreign policy and the DREAM Act to US Supreme Court nominees and the auto bailouts.

The auto bailouts, part of a recession-fighting government spending spree that helped to spawn an infuriated tea party movement, were a defining backdrop to the Mourdock-Lugar race. Lugar voted for the bailouts; Mourdock, in his role as state treasurer, sued over Washington’s plan to write down Chrysler’s bonds. Mourdock lost the case in the US Supreme Court, but his willingness to take a potentially unpopular stand – Indiana has thousands of Chrysler auto workers – caught the eye of tea party activists, who nominated him as their candidate at a convention last September.

On the stump, Mourdock, a trained geologist who carries a copy of the Constitution in his jacket pocket, said Lugar’s brand of across-the-aisle comity is what got the country into a mess, not only by failing to curb federal spending, but also by fueling it via a dysfunctional system that rewards lawmakers of both parties for continually expanding the scope and cost of federal government. Compromise, in essence, is leading to the ruin of the republic, Mourdock insisted.

His message apparently resonated among voters in a state that President Obama won in 2008, but that is now on his campaign’s “watch list.”

“Money may talk, but the people, as individuals, speak louder,” writes law professor Elizabeth Price Foley, author of “The Tea Party: Three Principles,” on the Instapundit blog. “And right now, politically speaking, the Tea Party seems to be a bullhorn, amplifying deep and abiding concerns of the American electorate.“

Lugar's defeat increases the chances that a Democrat, Rep. Joe Donnelly, could win Indiana's US Senate seat in November, though experts say the odds are against him in a solidly red state. On the other hand, a Mourdock win in November could help the Republicans take over the Senate. If that happens, and if Mitt Romney wins the White House, “they’ll radically change the shape of public policy in three months – they’re not going to fiddle around,” says Harvard political scientist Theda Skocpol, co-author of “The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism.”

The Mourdock victory “will give us fire, it will put wind in our sails,” confirms Monica Boyer, cofounder of Hoosiers for a Conservative Senate, a tea party group.

Lugar’s resounding defeat puts the dwindling numbers of moderate Republicans on notice that their incumbencies could be threatened, no matter the size of their election war chests.

“Any elected Republican that doesn't pursue a small government agenda once in office risks suffering the same fate as Lugar,” writes editorialist Philip Klein at the Washington Examiner. “Had Lugar hung on, then a lot of people would have dismissed the Tea Party as a passing fad from 2010. But now it's clear that the movement has been underestimated once again. Tea Partiers have a lot more staying power than skeptics expected.”

Still, polls show that Americans are increasingly skeptical of the tea party, whose philosophy Lugar recently characterized as “rejectionist.” The advance of constitutional hardliners within the Republican Party and the exit of dealmakers like Lugar and Sen. Olympia Snowe (R) of Maine will test the extent to which American voters value compromise.

“There are no moderates left to speak of in either party in the House and just maybe a handful in the Senate,” says Keith Poole, a political scientist at the University of Georgia. “As a result, it’s almost impossible to put together large bipartisan coalitions to pass reform legislation on entitlements. What’s happened is there’s been essential rejection of the left-over policies from the New Deal, and [tea party] folks are so conservative that they’ve kind of entered the ‘Twilight Zone.’ ”

Others say Mourdock’s historic win – it is only the third time a six-term incumbent US senator has been knocked out in a primary – point to a broader realignment in America’s two-party system.

“The long process of becoming normal parties of left and right began in the 1900s and is not quite complete more than a century later,” writes Mark Mardell for the BBC. “The trouble is that the American system does not function without good will and agreement.”

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