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.

Michael Bonfigli/The Christian Science Monitor
Senator Richard Lugar of Indiana, ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee at a Monitor-hosted breakfast in Washington, D.C., in January.

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.

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.

Despite his name recognition and seniority, Lugar does have political weaknesses, especially given the current antiestablishment mood in the country, with Congress seeing record low approval ratings. Anti-Washington sentiments are so strong that a Lugar spokesman recently said that even "the dog catcher" stands a chance at defeating an incumbent seen as the establishment candidate.

Tea party activists have several beefs with Lugar:

  • His support of President Obama's Supreme Court nominees.
  • His support of the 2008 TARP bailout, his vote to renew the START treaty with Russia.
  • His refusal to back an amendment that would have made it easier for Americans to carry concealed weapons.
  • His co-sponsorship of the failed DREAM Act, which aimed to create a path to legal residency for students who illegally came to the US as children.

But the more general complaint from the tea party is that Lugar, who first made his name as the mayor of Indianapolis in the 1960s, is too willing to go along with the Washington establishment instead of listening to demands from Americans to cut spending and lower the national debt – two pillars of the tea party platform.

"The nation has a problem with not only a budget deficit – a severe one – but also a massive debt problem … [He] hasn't done much to combat that, so it's time for somebody else," Greg Fettig, the co-chair of Hoosiers for a Conservative Senate, told the Associated Press last week.

The outcome of the challenge will be a gauge on whether the tea party's fortunes have continued to rise after its successes in the 2010 election. But some recent polls "suggest that there's more criticism of the tea party than there used to be," says Indiana University public affairs professor Leslie Lenkowsky.

Indiana also has an open primary, where Democrats and Independents can cast votes in the Republican primary. In the end this may weaken the influence of the tea party's campaign to defeat Lugar.

Also helping Lugar's cause in the minds of Indiana voters is the prospect of a Hoosier at the top of the Republican power structure if Republicans take the Senate, Mr. Lenkowski predicts.

Before a press conference announcing the Tea Party Express campaign in Indianapolis on Thursday, tea party activists said the effort isn't about Lugar's penchant for bipartisanship, but the Republican party's tradition of fiscal principles.

"The tea party has been the one force most active and vocal in standing up for fiscal responsibility, and because of that a lot of senators and representatives have started to change their ways," says Levi Russell, a spokesman for the Tea Party Express.

"But it's Dick Lugar who told the tea party to get real, that he knows better, and that he's immune from their criticism and need to listen to them. He's somebody who is not interested in seeing the light, so, as Reagan said, he needs to feel the heat."

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