Why the Tea Party Aimed for Sen. Lugar

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
May 8 2012 12:34 PM

Twilight of the Moderates

An early obituary for Sen. Richard Lugar, brought to you by the Tea Party.

Sen. Dick Lugar.
Sen. Dick Lugar, R-Ind.

Photograph by Tom Williams/Roll Call.

The kegs of Allagash and Starr Hill microbrews were tapped—the new FreedomWorks office was christened. It was March 1, 2011, roughly 14 months before the key U.S. Senate primaries that Dick Armey’s Tea Party group intended to win. Staffers for some of the new House and Senate members, plenty of them elected with FreedomWorks backing, strolled over from the Capitol for conversation and canapes. 

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

In walked Indiana Sen. Richard Lugar. Awkward. Lugar was just the kind of Republican FreedomWorks wanted to purge. It had been a few weeks since a local news team asked Lugar why the Tea Party didn’t like him, focusing on the senator’s support of the new START Treaty. “I've got to say ‘Get real,’ ” chuckled Lugar in the clip. But he had a lot of fence-mending time before his primary, so he and a staffer made the rounds at FreedomWorks. He was introduced to Matt Kibbe, the group’s mutton-chopped president. Later, more awkwardly, he was introduced to him again. And then he left.

“Some of our best allies had showed up,” remembers Max Pappas, the executive director of FreedomWorks PAC.  “And then, we saw guys like Orrin Hatch and Lugar. They thought that coming by for a handshake might fix some of their problems. Yeah. As if we care to shake hands with politicians.”

Fourteen months later, FreedomWorks has held 15 local “activist training” events in Indiana, distributed more than 10,000 pieces of campaign swag, and organized thousands of phone calls on behalf of Lugar’s primary opponent, State Treasurer Richard Mourdock. They’ve multiplied the efforts of Tea Party activists in the state, who organized early, endorsed Mourdock, and they are (metaphorically) cooling champagne for tonight.

“I think we have the race won, actually,” says Greg Fettig, who co-chairs Hoosiers for a Conservative Senate, and who could take credit, if he wanted, for the Tea Party’s coherence behind Mourdock against Lugar. “We’re already getting congratulations from around the country, which, to be honest, could probably wait a day.”

On the ledger, a Mourdock victory shouldn’t be possible. Lugar spent better than three times as much as Mourdock—$6.7 million to $2 million. When you include Super PAC spending, the Lugar’s forces still outspent the Tea Party and the D.C. conservative network—chiefly the Club for Growth—2 to 1. Lugar was scared straight by the 2010 election, opposed the president’s Libya approach, and ran TV ads about voting against “Obamacare” 33 times. His enemies think he’s going to lose anyway.

If it happens, we’ll know that purification of the GOP is coming right along. Forget about the presidential primary. Yes, the Tea Party lost that one. (“We support free markets, constitutionally limited government, and fiscal responsibility and we oppose politicians from both parties who do not,” wrote Pappas in September. “Romney does not.”) The primary, with its broader turnout and split field of flawed candidates, was not conducive to a Tea Party coup. In 2010, the best Tea Party wins came at state conventions and in lower-turnout, high base-intensity state primaries: Alaska, Delaware, Colorado. Moderate Republicans no longer have to come out and support Romney over the non-Romney-of-the-week. That, say conservatives, will make it easier for Mourdock to put together a win in Indiana, easier for Texas’ Ted Cruz to get a runoff berth in the state’s May 29 U.S. Senate primary, easier for House candidates everywhere.

Even more important than the timing: the planning. Lugar started his charm offensive in early 2011. He was too late. In December 2010, Fettig and other Tea Partiers had announced the Hoosiers for a Conservative Senate group. They were driven by the trauma of 2010, when Democrat Evan Bayh retired and freed up a Senate seat for any Republican who wanted it. Two credible conservatives ran in the primary—former Rep. John Hostettler and State Sen. Marlin Stutzman. Combined, they got more than 280,000 votes. And so they were beaten by former Sen. Dan Coats, whom Tea Partiers couldn’t care less about, with his 217,255 votes.

Never again. Tea Party groups met often, in town halls and caucuses open to the press. Mourdock, with no financial advantage and a bio that scared off bigger money (three losses in House races), worked them like an Amway salesman. He had met some of them on the bus to the September 2009 Taxpayer March on Washington, where he gave a speech that reporters mostly ignored. The activists remembered it.

“There he was, 100 or so feet from the Capitol, preaching against bailouts,” remembers Fettig. “And there, inside, was Lugar, voting for bailouts.”

The combined efforts of Mourdock and the Hoosiers group scared other challengers out of the race. (Last summer, when a conservative state senator threatened to get into the race, I assumed Lugar would play off the division and win again.) Lugar hustled. His American Conservative Union voting record—71 percent—was defensible, maybe. The hardest knocks against him seemed to be that he’d voted for TARP and for Barack Obama’s SCOTUS nominees, and that he’d appeared in an Obama ’08 TV ad trumpeting the work the two of them did on securing “loose nukes” in Asia. “I'm pleased we had the association Sen. Obama describes,” Lugar shrugged, shortly before Obama won the election—and Indiana.

Some may call it treason. The people who’ll probably beat Lugar express no malice about it. Taking out the Republicans who compromise with Democrats is a cold, logical decision, the easiest one they make. Jim Bopp, a lawyer who’s worked on dozens of lawsuits to break up the campaign finance regime, was one of the first notable Indiana Republicans to dump Lugar. His USA Super PAC sent out around $100,000 of mail for Mourdock. It wasn’t personal.

“Lugar is an honest and decent man, but he's voted wrong too many times,” says Bopp. “His approach is just wrong now. When Reagan was president, we could afford someone who approaches these issues in a moderate, bipartisan way. But now we have an administration out to destroy us, and we need a fighter. Here’s another way to say it. We’re in a march to socialism. Obama’s getting us there at 100 mph. If you endorse bipartisanship, you get us there at 50 mph.”

Bopp, like the other Mourdockians, hopes that a Lugar loss will put the fear of Tea back into Republicans. Nearly four years after TARP, the “bailout” can still be used to end the career of anyone who voted for it. The debit limit, that crisis Washington would love to rinse out of its memory banks, has become a new litmus test, a sort of TARP 2. Lugar voted for the debt ceiling deal in 2011; Hatch, who’s also facing a primary, voted against it. Hatch is still expected to survive. That shouldn’t matter. If Lugar goes down, and if the movement takes out freshman Rep. Larry Bucshon in Indiana’s 8th district, then the debt limit litmus test will be ready for the rest of the party.

The Mourdockians are confident today because of the polls, because of the ground game, because of Lugar’s apparent desperation. They’re also confident because the Lugar obituary—the “he was too good for them” storyline—has already popped up in the op-eds. Dana Milbank’s snark-free Indiana column pre-emptively shamed voters for their purity test, because “Lugar’s bipartisanship was in the service of protecting millions of Americans from nuclear, chemical and biological terrorism.” This didn’t really move Fettig.

“I’ve read New START, and it doesn’t address North Korea or Iran,” says Fettig. “Why would we want to limit our arsenal and hope that Russia does when we’re not even addressing other nations? I've been to Lugar’s office in D.C. It's wallpapered with pictures of him climbing in nuclear silos in Russia. I guess that's the legacy he sees himself leaving, but it's an outdated legacy. He not only refuses to leave the beltway, he refuses to leave the 1980s.”

That, says Fettig, is a real shame. “Do we like the fact that the nation is polarized? No. But the fact of the matter is, it is. From the media’s perspective, it’s OK to be bipartisan if you're a Republican. But Democrats never reach across the aisle. Their idea of compromise is complete surrender. Well, we want a guy who doesn’t give in. Yes, politics is polarized. Until one side or the other wins, that's the way it needs to be.”

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