Image: Richard Lugar
Alex Wong  /  AP file
Six-term Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., faces a a strong challenge in next year's primary from Tea Party favorite, state treasurer Richard Mourdock.
By Tom Curry National affairs writer
msnbc.com
updated 4/16/2011 7:31:03 PM ET 2011-04-16T23:31:03

With Tea Party activists rallying across the nation Saturday from Big Spring, Texas to Des Moines, Iowa, the outdoor political spectacle season is again upon us.

Celebrities — such as Donald Trump, who will be the keynote speaker Saturday at a rally in Boca Raton, Fla., and Sarah Palin who will speak at an event in Madison, Wisc. — will get a major share of attention.

But the significance of this spring’s fervor will really be measured only by the outcome of next year's primary elections and on Nov. 6, 2012, when the Tea Party movement has the chance to help its heroes, first-term House Republicans such as Allen West of Florida, Justin Amash of Michigan, and Vicky Hartzler of Missouri, defend the seats they won in 2010.

Defending allies in 2012 House races
West and Hartzler, for example, hold what had been Democratic seats in states that will be presidential battlegrounds in the 2012 elections.

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They’ll need Tea Party activists — or for that matter any other conservative activists they can find — to plant yard signs, conduct door-to-door canvassing, and work the phone banks.

The Indiana Senate race will also be a bellwether for testing Tea Party influence.

Six-term Sen. Richard Lugar, 79, a middle-of-the-road Republican who first won election to public office in 1964, faces a challenge from state Treasurer Richard Mourdock, who rocketed to fame by filing a lawsuit to try to block the federal government's bailout of Chrysler.

Video: Did the Tea Party lose the budget battle? (on this page)

Lugar starts out with a money advantage: he had $3 million in cash on hand as of last month, while Mourdock announced Friday that he had raised more than $157,000 since announcing his candidacy on Feb. 22.

In South Bend, Ind., Tom Grimes, founder of the local St. Joe Tea Party Patriots, said, “We’re organized in Indiana into a group called Hoosiers for a Conservative Senate. Our only mission is to find a conservative to replace Lugar. Ninety-nine percent of the Tea Party people are very comfortable with Richard Mourdock right now, but the organization wants to properly vet the candidates.”

Grievances with Lugar
Grimes listed the Tea Party grievances with Lugar: his co-sponsorship of the DREAM Act (which would have allowed citizenship for the children of illegal immigrants who'd been brought to the United States by their parents), his support for the START treaty to limit nuclear arsenals, and voting for President Barack Obama’s Supreme Court nominees, Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor. Lugar was one of only five Republican senators to vote for Kagan and Sotomayor.

“He’s not conservative. He looked conservative when he was supporting Reagan back in the 1980s” Grimes said. “He’s just been around too long.”

Grimes will also be working to elect one the Tea Party favorites, Jackie Walorski, who lost her bid in 2010 to northern Indiana Democratic Rep. Joe Donnelly. With Donnelly’s district having been re-apportioned and now leaning more Republican, he might forego the House race to run for the Senate.

In addition to backing candidates such as Mourdock and Walorski, Tea Party people will be taking part in movements such as the “True the Vote” initiative spearheaded by the Houston-based King Street Patriots group which aims to put poll watchers at voting places around the nation to deter fraud.

Success defined differently
In 2010, what was success for the Tea Party activists wasn’t always success for the Republican Party.

For instance, Tea Party-supported Senate candidate Christine O’Donnell won her primary but then lost — by a huge margin of nearly 17 points — the general election in Delaware to Democrat Chris Coons. Most observers thought centrist Rep. Mike Castle, whom O’Donnell defeated in the primary, would have had a good chance to beat Coons.

Ideological purity likely cost the Republicans not only that seat in Delaware but Senate seats in Nevada and Colorado, where Tea Party-backed candidates Sharron Angle and Ken Buck lost.

Political scientist John Pitney at Claremont McKenna College said, Tea Party activists can have a big impact “in a primary where turnout is low, or where the ‘establishment’ forces are divided. That way, a highly-motivated group can have disproportionate influence.”

Another scenario for Tea Party influence is “where the establishment candidate has gotten comfortable and is unaccustomed to serious challenges from the right. That is the danger facing Sen. Lugar in Indiana.”

Seeking presidential candidate
Pitney said it’s not certain that Tea Party activists will unify around a GOP presidential contender, but possible contenders are courting their support. “Even Mitt Romney is hailing the movement — which is like Dean Wormer praising Delta House.”

Ideologically, the most compatible presidential candidate for many Tea Party supporters might well be Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, but he has not said whether he will seek the nomination.

For now, with the field still shaping up for 2012, the Tea Party — or at least one image of it — is proving useful to Democratic leaders, who seem to have decided that the best way to defeat congressional Republicans is to portray them as beholden to the Tea Party.

On the Senate floor two weeks ago during the scrimmaging over the spending bill for the remainder of this fiscal year, New York Democrat Charles Schumer said, “As soon as House Republican leaders took one step toward compromise, the Tea Party rebelled, so they took two steps back ... Just as the Tea Party forced mainstream Republicans into extreme territory before, they are doing it again. And anyone who looks at this objectively sees that’s what’s happening.”

And Schumer was gleefully smiling when he said that.

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Video: Race to 2012 finally begins

  1. Closed captioning of: Race to 2012 finally begins

    >>> on to politics now and the race for the white house . there's no clear republican front -runner to challenge president obama , but the gop race is at last heating up. nbc's mike viqueira joins us from the white house .

    >> reporter: lester, you're right. this time around it's taken longer than usual to stop, but with top-tier candidates finally getting in, including the president himself, the race to sit here in the west wing coming 2012 is finally on. with tax day looming on monday, this weekend tea party -backed anti-tax rallies were held across the country, with some drawing possible gop white house hopefuls from sarah palin in rainy wisconsin --

    >> these are the front lines in the battle for the future of our country!

    >> reporter: -- to donald trump in sunny south florida .

    >> if i run and win, our country will be respected again.

    >> reporter: with his built-in celebrity and controversial views on president obama 's birth, trump has surprised many by showing early strength in polls. former minnesota governor tim pawlenty is also now raising money for a run.

    >> have you had enough of $4 a gallon gas?

    >> yeah.

    >> have you had enough of a federal government that is out of control?

    >> reporter: and mitt romney , a veteran of the 2008 race, went to the web monday to take his first formal steps towards a run.

    >> i'd like you to ask to join with us, volunteer, donate, or just pass this message along to a frenld.

    >> reporter: still others are all but running visiting early battlegrounds like iowa and new hampshire. the sudden activity comes after a slow start to the campaign. when then- senator barack obama jumped in four years ago in february, there were already 16 candidates in the race. now, with the democratic field so far to himself, president obama kicked off his run this week in chicago. putting the first millions into what many expect will be a billion-dollar war chest .

    >> we came here tonight because we know that for all the progress we've made we've still got business to do. we are not finished.

    >> reporter: even as the race takes shape, republicans are pushing deep cuts to democratic priorities and the first battle lines of the contest are already forming.

    >> it's about priorities, spending, deficit, debt, and possibly tax policy . that appears to be where we are as a country as everybody is focused on the economy.

    >> reporter: and, lester, this coming week the president plans no fewer than three trips to different states around the country for town halls to tout his debt and deficit reduction plan and continue to slam the republican plan at that passed yesterday. also in california next week, there will be some fund raising for the 2012

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