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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 / May 9, 2012

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.

Darron Cummings/AP

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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.

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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.” 

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.

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