The Tea Party's Moment
The Tea Party movement shook up the Congressional campaign landscape in 2010, electing a slew of unconventional candidates, pushing Republican candidates rightward, all while upsetting a few establishment favorites in the process.
But the next month could prove to be even more consequential for the movement, with major Senate primaries coming up, pitting conservative favorites against candidates backed by the GOP establishment. Already Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., is looking like the underdog against Indiana Treasurer Richard Mourdock in the state's May 8 primary. Meanwhile, three other insurgent conservatives are looking to pull off upsets by winning their party's nomination in Texas, Utah, and Nebraska.
(PICTURES: 4 Races That Will Test the Tea Party)
If the conservative favorites pull win in these races, the Tea Party could have more influence than they did two years ago, since the GOP nominees in these conservative-minded states would be favored to win the general election. In 2010, Tea Party favorites Sharron Angle, Christine O'Donnell and Ken Buck all won primaries but faced trouble with a general electorate in the swing states they were running in.
But if Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, fends off a persistent primary challenger, Texas Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst asserts his organizational advantages, and Nebraska Attorney General Jon Bruning can prevail despite outside groups spending money on behalf of his opponent, there will have been many missed opportunities for Tea Party activists.
Here are the races presenting the Tea Party with its biggest tests:
Indiana: Treasurer Richard Mourdock is on the verge of defeating Sen. Richard Lugar, a top target of conservatives this cycle. What one looked like a struggling Mourdock operation that couldn't raise money has morphed into a frontrunning campaign, thanks in large part to Lugar's inability to put the issue of his residency to rest. Buoyed by big ad buys from the Club For Growth, backed by Sarah Palin, and endorsed by FreedomWorks, Mourdock is right where he wants to be.
Mourdock's no outsider to politics. He's a statewide official who has run for Congress before --something Democrats will remind voters about if he's nominated. A Mourdock victory on May 8 would also give new life to Democrat Joe Donnelly's chances in the general election and would be yet another example of the right rankling the National Republican Senatorial Committee.
Nebraska: Attorney General Jon Bruning has the inside track on May 15, despite the involvement of Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., the Club For Growth and FreedomWorks. The Tea Party Express endorsed Bruning early on, but that only sparked a backlash from local activists. Don Stenberg, like Mourdock, is far from a political outsider -- and that's part of his problem. His best hope is that a Mourdock victory gins up some new enthusiasm for his campaign during the final week.
Like in Indiana with Donnelly, a Stenberg upset would be welcome news for Democratic nominee-in-waiting Bob Kerrey.
Texas: No one doubts that David Dewhurst will get the most votes during the May 29 primary, but the question is whether he will avoid a runoff by getting more than the necessary 50 percent. The last thing Dewhurst wants is to end up in a one-on-one race against the insurgent Ted Cruz, who DeMint and the Club are backing.
Cruz's rising national stock has not propelled him to the top of the Texas pack, a la Marco Rubio in 2010, who Cruz supporters liken him to all the time. But if he can get into a runoff, he has a fighting chance of taking down Dewhurst. The twice-postponed primary which will be held the day after Memorial Day weekend, suggests pretty low turnout, which is good news for the insurgent Cruz.
Utah: Sen. Orrin Hatch, who has done just about everything right in his reelection bid, came ever so close to sealing up the GOP nomination at the state GOP Convention on April 21. But almost wasn't good enough, triggering a June 26 primary against state Sen. Dan Liljenquist.
But it's no time to panic at Hatch HQ. He's is well positioned to win the nomination, even though more time has been added to the clock for Liljenquist. Hatch has more than ten times as much money and much better name ID than his underdog challenger.
The question is how much outside groups -- who were largely responsible for taking down Bob Bennett in 2010 -- will play in the coming weeks. The Club For Growth, which spent nearly $200,000 defeating Bennett at the 2010 convention, has run just one ad hitting Hatch all cycle long. "We're watching the race," was all Club spokesman Barney Keller would say when asked about the group's expected input.
FreedomWorks, which has poured over $700,000 in against Hatch already this cycle, officially endorsed Liljenquist after the convention. But it remains to be seen whether the group is willing to spend big bucks for him, in a race with a much larger pool of voters than the convention. The primary is June 26, but if Liljenquist can't begin to show signs of life in May, the race may be effectively over before the election.