Ron Formisano: Tea Party still brewing upsets; strength yet to be determined

May 18, 2012 

Turns out that obituaries for the Tea Party were premature.

Alive and well in Kentucky, the movement has risen again in the Indiana Republican primary for the U.S. Senate nomination and knocked off an establishment Republican incumbent deemed too moderate.

Richard Lugar, a 36-year-veteran highly respected for his foreign policy expertise and bipartisanship, lost to state Treasurer Richard Mourdock, failing to get even 40 percent of the vote. Six years ago, Lugar did not even face a Democratic opponent.

The Tea Partiers and Mourdock are claiming victory for their ideological purity and for no compromise with Democrats. "I have a mind-set," Mourdoch told Fox News after his victory, "that says bipartisanship ought to consist of Democrats coming to the Republican point of view."

Tea Party allied groups poured over $3 million into the race for ads criticizing Lugar for cooperating with President Barack Obama and supporting his nominees to the Supreme Court, as well as the Dream Act, the bank bailout, nuclear nonproliferation and more. Tea Partiers and conservative Republicans accused Lugar of being insufficiently conservative.

The National Rifle Association and the Club for Growth and FreedomWorks joined in the assault on Lugar.

FreedomWorks, often represented in the media as speaking for Tea Party rank and file, is a Washington-based offshoot of a corporate lobbying organization funded largely by the reactionary petrochemical billionaires Charles and David Koch.

FreedomWorks spent close to a million to defeat Lugar and no doubt will pour money into Mourdoch's fall campaign against Democratic Congressman Joe Donnelly. Koch money played a large role in the 2010 elections and is gearing up to keep driving the Republican Party even further to the right.

With friends like that, the Tea Party should never be counted out, but a closer look at what happened in Indiana suggests that the real test of Tea Party clout in Indiana will come in November's General Election.

A low turnout primary advantages the ideologically intense and big money. While Mourdoch crushed Lugar with an impressive 60 percent, his 403,293 votes represented a fraction of the 2010 U.S. Senate turnout of 1.7 million.

The 2012 Indiana electorate will surely exceed that figure in a presidential year.

More importantly, while Mourdoch promises to take what Lugar called his "unrelenting partisanship" to Congress, 60 percent of primary voters said they preferred a senator who would solve problems even if it meant "reaching across the aisle."

Even those who voted for him were split, with 48 percent favoring cooperation and 46 percent wanting no deals.

Polls showed too that Lugar's age and the residency issue worked against him more than the issues targeted by the Tea Party. Close to three-fourths of Mourdoch voters cited Lugar's age together with his long incumbency and Virginia residency — he claimed as his Indiana voting address a house he sold in 1977 — as prompting their vote against him.

Thus, the Tea Party grassroots and the Astroturf outside money, that Lugar said made Indiana their "playground," played a role in his defeat, but may be claiming too much credit.

Those forces will come into play for Mourdoch in November, but how will he define himself between now and then?

As treasurer, he spent $2 million in taxpayer money to block Chrysler's bailout, putting 124,000 Indiana jobs at risk. Will he defend that action, as well as his call for eliminating the 17th Amendment and going back to having state legislatures elect U.S. senators?

Some Republican leaders are already trying to position him as "mainstream," which may say as much about how far the party has moved to the right as it does about their newest Tea Party darling.

University of Kentucky history professor Ron Formisano has recently written The Tea Party: A Brief History (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012).

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