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Sen. Dick Lugar trails GOP rival in poll. A surge of tea party power?

Ahead of Tuesday's GOP primary in Indiana, incumbent Sen. Dick Lugar lags challenger Richard Mourdock by 10 points, a new poll shows. A Lugar defeat would be a convincing demonstration of tea party power in 2012 election cycle.

By , Staff writer

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    After six terms in the US Senate, Richard Lugar (R) of Indiana is facing his first serious opponent in decades in state Treasurer Richard Mourdock.
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Here along the banks of the mighty Ohio River, the earth is sliding, taking roads and backyards with it. It's the kind of erosion that Richard Mourdock understands, as plain as the hill near his southwestern Indiana home that marks the Terminal Moraine, where the ancient glaciers began their retreat.

The tea party-backed primary challenger to Sen. Richard Lugar (R) of Indiana is, after all, not just the state's treasurer and an amateur historian, but also a geologist, who finds allegory in rocks and river bends. To fight the erosion caused by America's expanding debt, "we've got to have the courage of our convictions," Mr. Mourdock told potential donors in Batesville, Ind., recently. "Bipartisanship has taken us to the brink of bankruptcy."

The May 8 Senate primary here in Indiana may well have important, even earth-moving, implications. Foremost, it's a chance for the antitax tea party movement, after it exploded onto the national political scene in 2009 and reinvigorated a moribund Republican Party ahead of the 2010 midterms, to demonstrate that it still has influence.

Recommended: Six 2012 races where the tea party counts

On Friday, four days before the primary, came this inkling that it might: Mourdock leads Senator Lugar 48 percent to 38 percent in the latest Howey/DePauw University poll, conducted April 30 and May 1. 

In its debut campaign cycle, the tea party movement drove five-term Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania out of the Republican Party, derailed the reelection bid of three-term Sen. Robert Bennett (R) of Utah, and defeated Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell's handpicked candidate for the Senate in Kentucky in favor of tea party activist Rand Paul.

But some tea party activists now worry that their brand of leaderless "small government" is seen by many Americans as simply obstructionist. They also worry that the zeal of national tea party groups, which are flooding Indiana with negative ads to make an example of Lugar, is creating deep splits in the movement.

Defeating Lugar in Indiana, which has more tea party groups than any other Midwestern state, could signal that the movement retains the capacity to lay the groundwork for a radical reformation of national priorities. Mourdock's 10-point lead in the latest poll, despite being outspent by Lugar on the campaign trail, suggests that the tea party may be closer to that goal. Activists were buoyed, too, after they last month forced another target, Sen. Orrin Hatch (R) of Utah, into a primary fight against a tea party-approved opponent.

"Tea party activists are quite aware that they're being written off now, even though the tea party overall has had enormous impact on the presidential primaries, because Republican conservatives are, in essence, holding the party hostage," says Harvard University political scientist Theda Skocpol, coauthor of "The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism."

"But if they don't succeed in knocking off any senator, the kind of terror that they hold for incumbent officeholders will dissipate," she adds. "On the other hand, if the Republicans take the House, Senate, and the presidency, they'll radically change the shape of public policy in three months – they're not going to fiddle around. And knocking off Lugar would make that easier to do."

"People are reading a lot into this election nationally, and that's because there is, in fact, a lot at stake – both for the country and for the tea party," says Diane Hubbard, cofounder of the Indianapolis Tea Party, who runs Mourdock's grass-roots campaign team.

Born into a farming family, Lugar, a former Indianapolis mayor, remains an icon of Indiana, a political patron saint. He won his last election, to his sixth term, with 87 percent of the vote.

But these days Lugar isn't answering a lot of questions about foreign policy, his specialty. He's talking hogs and corn prices at agricultural fairs and defending a "35-year conservative record" by voicing his support for the Fair Tax Act, pushing for the end to the estate tax, and chastising the Obama administration for its stance on the Keystone XL oil pipeline – all sweet spots for restive Republicans.

Fighting a tea party movement that helped turn a majority of Republican county chairmen against him, Lugar has found himself needing to defend not just his beliefs, but also his legislative strategy, especially his willingness to go along with President Obama's US Supreme Court nominees and the Democrats' DREAM Act for the children of illegal immigrants.

That shift was hastened as Mourdock's tea party ground game was joined by outsider groups and political-action committees such as the antitax Club for Growth, FreedomWorks, and the National Rifle Association, leaving Lugar spokesman Andy Fisher to note that Indiana has become "the last playground for these national groups." The Club for Growth endorsement in February was "the best valentine I ever got," Mourdock says.

"Some persons within our party who say, my way or the highway – they really are less interested, in my judgment, in whether Republicans have a majority in the Senate or the House, than that there be a certain standard in close purity among those who are there," Lugar recently told Gwen Ifill of the "PBS NewsHour." "They do not feel that people ought to work with Democrats across the aisle. Compromise is a bad word."

While Lugar's campaign has slammed Mourdock for joining with out-of-state groups who conduct "Mickey Mouse attacks," Mourdock's ads have seized on Lugar's past support for a gasoline tax increase. The claim is based on an op-ed Lugar wrote for The Washington Post in 2009 in which the senator proposed a "net zero" tax shift by reducing payroll taxes by equal amounts. Despite a worsening energy situation, "Dick Lugar wanted to raise gas taxes a dollar a gallon," an announcer says in one Mourdock ad.

The attacks – as well as a residency scandal, in which Lugar's right to vote in Indiana was briefly revoked (he lives in an affluent suburb in McLean, Va., and has listed a home he sold in 1977 as his primary residence in Indiana), and questions about his age – have taken a toll on Lugar.

More worrisome than his slim seven-point lead over Mourdock is Lugar's career-low approval rating of 42 percent. Incumbents whose approval ratings are less than 50 percent and who face strong challengers tend not to survive their primary contests.

What's more, Mourdock made up for what began as a 10-to-1 fundraising disadvantage by outraising Lugar in the first quarter of this year by $55,000.

Mourdock's gains suggest to some that Lugar failed to anticipate a vigorous challenge, a misstep possibly fueled by the fact that Democrats saw him as so unbeatable that they didn't even bother to put up a challenger against him in 2006.

"With polarization at this level, I wouldn't be surprised to see [Lugar] go down," says Keith Poole, a political scientist at the University of Georgia in Athens. He contrasts Lugar's situation with that of Sen. Orrin Hatch (R) of Utah, whom the tea party also had in its sights. "Hatch took off the gloves and went back to Utah and started punching people in the nose, and Hatch is going to win reelection."

To critics, Mourdock, the man from Darmstadt, Ind., is a rabid hard-liner with a milquetoast manner, committed to making "bipartisan" a dirty word. To his tea party supporters, both nationally and in Indiana, he is, as activist Anna Kroyman says, "a modern-day Founder," whose stump speech features lessons drawn from Abraham Lincoln and Ronald Reagan.

In person, Mourdock is affable, attentive, and direct, and he makes no pretense about his longtime interest in politics – including the fact that he twice lost contests for a congressional seat.

"I'm basically addicted to campaigning – no, seriously," he says. The former oil-industry geologist says he reads history books every night. At a later event, he ties the political stakes of today to Lincoln's words to Congress in 1862, shortly after the Union's narrow victory at Antietam: "We know how to save the Union.... We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best hope of earth."

When asked about Lugar's residency problems, Mourdock pulls out a pocket copy of the Constitution and flips it open to Article I, Section 3: "No person shall be a Senator … who shall not, when elected, be an Inhabitant of that State for which he shall be chosen."

The definition of "inhabitant," of course, is open to interpretation, but it's that idea – that semantics overshadow the actual words and their meanings – that gives immediacy to what Mourdock told folks at a Lincoln Day Dinner in Batesville: "We must define ourselves. We must take a stand. We must win America back."

He's a "mild-mannered sort of gentle soul … who looks like a normal candidate until he speaks, and then you realize he's a throwback kind of conservative of a kind we haven't seen for a long, long time," says Gerald Wright, a political scientist at Indiana University in Bloomington.

Chastened by the inability of Indiana tea parties to coalesce around individual candidates ahead of the 2010 election, tea party activists Greg Fettig and Monica Boyer started Hoosiers for A Conservative Senate in early 2011. The umbrella group held a nominating convention last September, where a plurality of tea party groups backed Mourdock.

"We just fell in love with him," Ms. Boyer says. "And we knew if we didn't unite, we didn't have a fighting chance."

The basic idea was to create a single-election umbrella group that focuses tea party energy, while also allowing each local group to retain its independence. Tea party activists in Michigan and Florida have expressed interest in using the tactic, she adds.

Though Boyer suggests the strategy has so far worked "swimmingly," not everyone shares that assessment. The tactics of the umbrella "unity" group – both its personal attacks on Lugar as well as the vicious internecine blog wars that erupted – turned sentiments in the state against the tea party, forcing activists to defend their involvement, writes Ms. Kroyman, the White County tea party activist, in the "Hijacking the Indiana Tea Party" chapter of an unpublished tea party history.

"Richard Lugar is not a bad man, and to attack him for the silly things they are attacking him for is just nonsensical, and it really disgraces the tea party," says Kroyman, in an interview. "We don't need an umbrella group. Our strengths are unique to every group, and the strength of the tea party lies in the independence of groups."

In the end, the bid by local, state, and national tea party groups to "dump Lugar" in 2012 in favor of a Constitution-quoting earth scientist has the feel of a momentous moment in the tea party's short history, suggests Ms. Hubbard, Mourdock's grass-roots organizer.

In other words, will 2012 mark the advance of the tea party in Republican politics or its Terminal Moraine? If Mourdock wins, it would be the first time since 1952 that a sitting six-term senator has lost in a primary.

If not, it's more proof that "the tea party burned bright and faded quick," says Vanderbilt University political scientist Steven Tepper.

Recommended: Six 2012 races where the tea party counts
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