Tea party targets Sen. Richard Lugar: Can moderate Republicans survive?
Tea party activists in Indiana will work to unseat 36-year Senate veteran Richard Lugar, a centrist, in an 'eat your own' gambit that could shape the direction of the Republican party.
Earlier this year Sen. Richard Lugar (R) of Indiana criticized Indiana's tea party movement as "Republican renegades," telling them to "get real." As the 2012 campaign cycle begins to heat up, a shifting political climate suggests that the 36-year Senate veteran may need to take the tea party wing of his state's Republican party more seriously.Skip to next paragraph
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Driving that point home, following a straw poll by Indiana tea party activists on Saturday, the national Tea Party Express group announced Thursday the launch of the "Campaign to Defeat Dick Lugar," an effort to unseat the senator who is known by more conservative members of his party as a RINO, or Republican in name only.
The intraparty battle in Indiana is a poignant and potentially far-reaching example of the continuing attempt by disgruntled Republicans, independents, and libertarians to shake up the GOP establishment, represented to many by long-serving centrists like Senator Lugar.
Lugar has not only come to embody Capitol Hill bipartisanship, but he is also in competition with Sen. Orrin Hatch (R) of Utah (another tea party target) to become the most powerful Senator on the Hill if Republicans capture the chamber next year.
The tea party has already reshaped national politics, sending a large cadre of freshman Republicans to Congress to block spending and attempt to reboot the economy by cutting regulations on industry and small business. But the looming battle in Indiana portends what could be a longer-lasting legacy for the small-government movement that emerged after the TARP bailouts of 2008.
"I think what we're seeing is that as the tea party becomes more vocal and prominent, it is exerting itself on the larger party," says Robert Schmuhl, an American studies professor at Notre Dame, in South Bend, Ind. "It's possible we are reaching a stage in our politics where the polarization is so profound that a figure like Richard Lugar seems to be lost in that environnment."
Tea party groups overwhelmingly endorsed state treasurer Richard Mourdock on Saturday for next year's Indiana Senate race, casting all but one vote for the tea party favorite who's seeking to deny Lugar a seventh term. Despite his lower name recognition, some early polls show Mr. Mourdock within hailing distance of Lugar.
On the other hand, while Mourdock's fundraising has been anemic, Lugar's war chest is huge and he counts among his political supporters popular Gov. Mitch Daniels, his political protégé.
The Tea Party Express's influence on 2010 Senate races was mixed: The California-based group backed both winners like Marco Rubio of Florida and Mike Lee of Utah and ultimate electoral losers like Nevada's Sharron Angle and Delaware's Christine O'Donnell.
"This is no news for the campaign that an outside-of-Indiana organization would like to come in and influence what the voters of Indiana think, and should think," Lugar's political director David Willkie told CNN Wednesday in response to announcement of the Tea Party Express campaign.