One of the Tea Party's most overlooked talents is its ability to lose elections for the Republican Party.
In the 2010 midterm elections, conservative groups in Nevada, Delaware, and Colorado bypassed popular, experienced GOP candidates for Congress and replaced them with ideological extremists. Each of those races should have been a lock for the GOP, but because former member of the Nevada Assembly Sharron Angle, Delaware’s Christine O'Donnell, and Ken Buck of Colorado were uniformly incapable of attracting independent voters, all three states went blue. This year, the Tea Party looks poised for another costly victory, this time in Indiana with longtime Senator Dick Lugar (R-Ind.) on the line.
The Tea Party's obsession with making extreme ideological statements has handicapped the Republican Party. Speaking in 2009, Senator Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) said he would rather have 30 Republicans in the Senate who agree with him than have 60 that "don’t have a set of beliefs." This dogmatic obsession is a key part of the upcoming primary in Indiana, with the conservative publication National Review lambasted Senator Lugar for holding a political philosophy, "so subtle that in unfavorable light it scarcely seems to exist at all."
In recent decades, Senator Lugar has been one of the most (if not the most) popular elected officials in Indiana. He won his most recent election for Senate in 2006 with 87% of the vote; Democrats didn’t event mount a challenger. But now Lugar is facing an opponent — State Treasurer Richard Mourdock — in the primaries with endorsements from Tea Party groups the Club for Growth, Indiana Right to Life, FreedomWorks, and most recently the National Rifle Association.
Polls show Mourdock (R-Ind.) gaining on Lugar. Trailing by 25 points in February, Mourdock was only 7 points back by the end of March. And last week, after receiving the support of the NRA, Mourdock released internal polling that put him ahead of the incumbent 42% to 41%.
What would a Mourdock win mean? On the one hand, survey results show Moudock in a dead heat against the Democrat's nominee, Congressman Joe Donnelly, a stark contrast to the 21-point lead Senator Lugar received when compared to Donnelly in the same poll. On the other hand, Indiana looks poised to go red this November (Barack Obama’s approval ratings in the Hoosier state haven't moved above 45% in the past two years), and that conservative momentum might be enough to propel any Republican Senate nominee to victory.
Seeing establishment conservatives, like Bob Bennett in Utah and Charlie Christ in Florida, lose their primaries in 2010 sent a warning to the entire Republican Party: no one is safe. With less than three weeks to go before the May 8th primary, Senator Lugar has gone on the attack, pointing to the influx of outsider money propelling the Mourdock campaign.
On May 8th, those hoping the GOP will regain the Senate will be paying close attention to Indiana, as the state decides whether to keep Old Faithful or risk loosing the seat by nominating Mr. Tea Party. With the incumbent on the defensive and more than 15 days to go, this is anybody's game.