To steal a line from Mark Twain, it seems as though rumors of the death of the Tea Party have been greatly exaggerated.
Tea Party-backed challenger Richard Mourdock defeated incumbent Senator Richard Lugar in the Indiana Republican Primary this week. Mourdock won 60 percent of the vote to Lugar’s 40 percent.
It was a rout.
The current resurgence in Tea Party activity comes even as polls show national support for the Tea Party at just 25 percent, only 9 points higher than Occupy Wall Street in the latest Wall Street Journal/NBC poll.
That is a long way from the 2010 mid-term elections. In September 2010 the Tea Party captured the populist anger that brought thousands of people to Washington DC in 2009 to protest President Obama’s health care bill.
But despite its declining popularity the Tea Party’s no-compromise ideology has become an accepted part of the political game, especially in the GOP. They bring energy, money and activists to any candidate.
Make no mistake, they will be a force in the 2012 election and beyond.
The Tea Party’s continuing influence also means the larger Republican Party will have to figure out a long-term strategy for dealing with its persistent, raw power.
The GOP’s veteran leaders know the Tea Party ideology hurts the Republicans in general elections decided by independent and conservative Democrats.
For example, Lugar is a statesman with proven appeal to independents and conservative Democrats in general elections. Mourdock will have a hard time winning over those voters come November.
But Lugar never fit with Tea Party faithful because he supports gun control. He received a grade of “F” from the National Rifle Association.
He also upset Tea Party-types by voting to confirm President Obama’s two nominees for the U.S. Supreme Court, Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor.
He also supported the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) and the DREAM Act.
In Utah, Tea Party activists forced another long-time GOP Senator, Orrin Hatch, into a run-off election against a more conservative challenger, Dan Liljenquist. For a while it looked as if the Tea Party might defeat Hatch at the state GOP convention last month but Hatch survived.
The revived Tea Party’s most significant victory may come early next month if Wisconsin Republican Governor Scott Walker survives his recall election.
But Tea Party’s work in Wisconsin has come at a steep price. The petition triggering the Walker recall election got almost twice the required number of signatures. Two Republican state senators were picked off by recall campaigns last summer. Walker, Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch and three Republican state senators also face recall elections prompted their use of no-holds-barred Tea Party tactics to pass a controversial law limiting the collective bargaining rights of unionized teachers and some other government workers.
Many of the same Tea Party activists working in Walker’s defense helped to defeat Lugar. Conservative grassroots organizations like the Club for Growth, FreedomWorks, and the Tea Party Express rallied behind 60-year-old state treasurer Mourdock in his bid. They outspent the establishment favorite Lugar by almost 2:1 and buried him with a blizzard of negative television ads.
Tea Party powerhouses like Herman Cain, Congresswoman Michele Bachmann and former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin all threw their support behind Mourdock.
Moderate Republicans on Capitol Hill like Maine Senator Susan Collins and South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham have surely taken notice of what happened in Indiana.
As they gear up for their re-elections in 2014, they will have to start thinking about how they will stay in the Tea Party’s good graces if they are to survive GOP primary contests. That means they will likely move to their political right and away from independent voters who are key to winning any general election. All of these Republicans are moderate to conservative. But apparently they fail to meet the hard-right, uncompromising approach to conservatism of the Tea Party. Lugar, for example, held a 77 percent lifetime conservative rating from the American Conservative Union.
But for now the Tea Party can now place Lugar’s scalp alongside those of Delaware’s Mike Castle and Utah’s Bob Bennett who were defeated in their 2010 primaries by conservative challengers.
Love them or not, the Tea Party has staying power.