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Mourdock (Associated Press/Photo by AJ Mast)

Still brewin'

Politics | With Richard Mourdock's ouster of Richard Lugar in Indiana, talk of the Tea Party's demise seems premature

Political pundits during this election year have often returned to a favorite topic: the impending demise of the Tea Party.

The National Journal in February headlined an article, "Failed Candidates and Faded Icons Reflect Tea Party decline." That same month The New York Times claimed that the influence of the Tea Party is waning.

On television, MSNBC displayed the banner "weak tea" on screen as a studio desk full of experts debated whether the Tea Party's influence is waning. Meanwhile ABC News' website asked if the Tea Party is "over"?

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A little more than three years after the Tea Party exploded onto the political stage and less than two years after the movement helped Republicans manage the largest turnover in the U.S. House in more than 70 years, even former GOP presidential candidate Newt Gingrich said on CNN that the Tea Party doesn't have "the passion they had in 2010."

But Tuesday's Tea Party-engineered ouster of moderate Sen. Richard Lugar in Indiana, one of the longest-serving members of the Senate, proves that the movement still has plenty of muscle, which candidates this fall would be foolish to ignore.

Lugar, a six-term senator firmly entrenched in the GOP's establishment, will not even be on the November ballot for a seventh term after losing Tuesday in the Indiana GOP primary to Richard Mourdock, the state's treasurer. Mourdock had received the endorsement of Indiana Tea Party groups as well as national Tea Party organizations like FreedomWorks and the Tea Party Express.

In a veiled jab at the Tea Party, Lugar, whose loyalty to conservative ideals was questioned during the primary race, criticized Mourdock for supporting "groups whose prime mission is to cleanse the Republican Party of those who stray from orthodoxy as they see it."

Lugar said of Mourdock, "His embrace of an unrelenting partisan mindset is irreconcilable with my philosophy of governance."

Lugar's forced retirement is a reflection of both the Tea Party's continued influence and the anti-incumbent mindset that still thrives across the country.

"Sen. Lugar has sided too many times with the Democrats," Stacy Rutkowski of Valparaiso told the Associated Press after voting for Mourdock on Tuesday. "He's been there six terms, and it's time for some new blood."

This voter attitude against the status quo has endangered another veteran senator: Orrin Hatch of Utah, who is also seeking a seventh term. Last month, Hatch did not get enough votes at the state's Republican convention to avoid a run-off election set for June. Tea Party groups are also mounting charges against establishment candidates in open U.S. Senate races in Texas and Nebraska.

A lot of the talk dismissing the Tea Party stems from the results of the Republican presidential primary race: Tea Partiers could never coalesce around a single candidate in the once-crowded field. The group remains skeptical of the GOP's presumptive nominee, Mitt Romney.

But Lugar's loss suggests that Romney would be wise to find ways to reach out to the Tea Party movement if he wants to energize the conservative base before November's election.

Edward Lee Pitts
Edward Lee Pitts

Lee teaches journalism at Dordt College in Sioux Center, Iowa, and is the associate dean of the World Journalism Institute.


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