For those who think Sen. Richard Lugar’s defeat was primarily attributable to running a weak campaign or for living outside of Indiana for decades, I’ve got one number in dissent: 38 percent. That’s the shockingly low percentage of the vote the six-term senator won this month, with a margin of defeat larger than any other senator in a primary over the past three decades. That’s a 2006 Rick Santorum-like loss, for a politician who had been accustomed to coasting to landslide victories. It suggests that even if Lugar had run a top-notch campaign, he would have been susceptible to forces outside of his control: a Republican electorate looking for new faces and more-outspoken conservative leadership.
(RELATED: Fischer Wins Senate GOP Primary in Neb.)
Lugar’s landslide loss is a sign of the maturation of the tea party, a loosely defined confederation of conservative activists in 2010 who have banded together and threaten to have a defining impact in 2012. Because they’re not conducting mass protests, Occupy Wall Street-style, many pundits naïvely presumed their strength had subsided. But in reality, the masses of disaffected conservatives are a sleeping giant.
Antiestablishment GOP candidates have a chance to score Senate-primary upsets in Nebraska, Texas, Utah, and Wisconsin. In three of those four races, the Republican nominee would start off as the heavy favorite in the general election—a major difference from the 2010 GOP primaries fought in more Democratic-friendly states, such as Colorado, Delaware, and Nevada.
(RELATED: What Fischer's Win in Neb. Means)
In Nebraska, state senator Deb Fischer’s stunning primary victory Tuesday night over the establishment favorite, state Attorney General Jon Bruning, is just the latest grassroots-fueled upset. Fischer, whose campaign was virtually ignored by political insiders, received a jolt of momentum after Sarah Palin endorsed her candidacy last week.
To be sure, Fischer was an unintended beneficiary of well-funded attacks from outside conservative groups against Bruning, the long-standing front-runner. The Club for Growth, FreedomWorks, and Sen. Jim DeMint’s Senate Conservatives Fund backed another challenger, Don Stenberg, and spent more than $2 million bashing Bruning. Stenberg, though, struggled to get traction—in part, because he’s run for the Senate unsuccessfully three times before. So Fischer, with conservative credentials of her own, successfully filled that void in the campaign’s last several weeks. From the outset, she effectively touted her ranching background in contrast to the “career politicians” she was running against. It's a reminder that in this anti-Washington environment many activists value outsider credentials as much as compatible ideology.
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The other recent sign that all is not well with the GOP establishment took place last weekend in Wisconsin, where former Gov. Tommy Thompson performed weakly at the state party convention, getting eliminated from endorsement contention on the second ballot (with just 18 percent of the vote). It was a glaring rebuke for Thompson, who ruled the party’s roost throughout the 1990s as governor but looks like he’s lost his luster with his state’s Republican voters. Club for Growth-backed former Rep. Mark Neumann looks best-positioned to capture grassroots momentum, though two other candidates are also looking to claim the conservative mantle (hedge fund manager Eric Hovde and state Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald, who boasts ties to Gov. Scott Walker).
Much like with Lugar, polls early on in this race showed Thompson to be holding an awfully weak lead in the primary, despite his high name recognition. Unlike in Indiana, however, the conservative opposition is splintered, making it possible for Thompson to win without support from the base.
The next big contest is shaping up in Texas, where conservatives have rallied around former state Solicitor General Ted Cruz against establishment-favored Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst. Dewhurst, by virtue of a deep war chest and connections to Texas politicos, is expected to comfortably finish in first place in the May 29 primary. Cruz, for his part, hasn’t yet translated the outside conservative excitement in his polling, still lagging a distant second.
But Cruz-backers are anticipating Dewhurst will draw less than 50 percent of the vote, a scenario that would prompt a July 31 runoff. Under that scenario, Cruz (if he finishes second) would be able to make the race into a one-on-one fight between the establishment and the grassroots. Don’t underestimate how quickly outside money could come in if Cruz looks to be within striking distance—just as Richard Mourdock’s fundraising spiked after polls showed him competitive with Lugar.
Finally, don’t automatically assume that Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, is safe after nearly dispatching state Sen. Dan Liljenquist at last month’s nominating convention. Hatch’s tireless work securing support from party loyalists and solidifying his conservative credentials have gone a long way toward securing a seventh term. However, like Lugar, he’s been in the Senate for 36 years, and he is running in a state that hasn’t been kind to GOP incumbents lately, with two other Republicans (former Sen. Robert Bennett and former Rep. Chris Cannon) losing renomination bids in the last four years. The race could close before the June 26 primary.
Take a close look at the scoreboard: A well-respected senator suffering a historic primary loss, a once-popular former four-term governor being rebuked by party activists, a Republican establishment favorite losing despite a significant organizational advantage, and another one at serious risk of being defeated. If the tea party hasn’t already won, I don’t know what victory looks like.
This article appears in the May 16, 2012, edition of National Journal Daily.