Tea Party activists across Indiana and nationally hope today marks the end of Sen. Dick Lugar’s political life.
Lugar, who has spent 36 years in the Senate, is attempting to fight off a primary challenger and relative newcomer to Indiana politics, state Treasurer Richard Mourdock. A conservative favorite elected in 2006 to his current post, he previously had a long career in the energy sector, founding an environmental consulting business. He’s positioned himself as the more conservative alternative to Lugar, who is most known for his work on foreign relations and was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize in 2000 for his efforts to halt nuclear proliferation.
But for Tea Partiers, Lugar has been no champion of the rightward fiscal positions they have brought to the fore over the last three years, and therefore must go.
“The message that gets through is that Lugar has been there too long,” Brendan Steinhauser, director of campaigns for FreedomWorks told TPM, the Tea Party affiliated organization which is focused on House and Senate races in 2012. Steinhauser and FreedomWorks have been coordinating a large effort on behalf of Mourdock over the last four weeks, recruiting volunteers from nearby Ohio, Kentucky, Michigan, Illinois, and Missouri to come to Indiana and knock on doors for him, while volunteers from around the country make calls to Republican voters in the state. Steinhauser says activists have knocked on 125,000 doors and made 400,000 phone calls to “super voters,” those who have cast ballots in multiple Republican primaries in the past.
It seems to have produced results, and while the polling has been inconclusive, no survey over the last two months has shown Lugar over 50 percent — not the best position to be in for an incumbent senator looking to enter his fourth decade of service. And it certainly seems that Lugar is feeling the heat — on Friday he made a desperate plea for crossover votes in the open primary, even summing up at a press conference reported by the Indianapolis Star, “At this point, help.”
The ability of Tea Party candidates to win legislative primaries is well documented. But in the case of Indiana, an even broader theme may be surfacing. As a member of the Senate, Lugar was best known for his accomplishments on the world’s stage, as chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee. But now locked in a contest with someone running to his right, it’s not just that domestic priorities are dwarfing those accomplishments, it’s that Tea Party activists don’t particularly value them in the first place.
“FreedomWorks does not take a position on foreign policy, other than to support free trade,” Steinhauser said in a followup email to TPM. “Our disappointment with Senator Lugar is about his votes for bailouts, more federal spending, higher taxes, more regulations and government mandates on healthcare and energy. He has a long, liberal voting record on these issues and that is why we decided to officially join this fight in September, 2011 to replace him.”
And it’s that shift which may be the most interesting facet of how the Tea Party is evolving since its inception in 2009: Before the movement seemed to be about capturing anger and frustration with government — now activists are trying to change the conversation on policy and priorities.
“I think from our perspective the most important issues facing the country are financial,” Steinhauser wrote. “Our biggest national security threats include a $16 trillion national debt and future unfunded liabilities that run into the $100 trillion range when you include local, state and federal liabilities. We are facing a fiscal catastrophe if we don’t fix these problems and keep our economy growing.”
Kyle is the Editor of TPM Media’s PollTracker. He graduated from Beloit College (WI) and began working in politics before getting an M.A. in magazine journalism from New York University, where he interned at TPM and the website of The New Yorker.