Surviving incumbency in the Age of the Tea Party is not easy for long-serving senators. Orrin Hatch seems to have made it through the gauntlet, but Bob Bennett didn’t two years ago. Dick Lugar fell to a challenger who, like Mike Lee in Utah, presented genuine credentials backed by a statewide organization, and Richard Mourdock will make a fine general-election candidate. Lisa Murkowski battled back and held on to her seat despite a loss in the primary to Joe Miller.
The “Tea Party” is short hand for everything and nothing, but mostly it means those voters who are disgusted with D.C. dysfunction. When that digest can get organized, get traction, and get a target, it is a powerful shaper of election results but its support is not by itself a sufficient guarantee of victory. It is a movement, not a party, but it is a powerful impulse within the party.
Senator Lugar is no doubt loved and admired by a strong majority of Indiana voters, and there is a lot more sorrow than anger in many votes to replace him. His age would have been an asset in an era of Ike-like steadiness, but not in the turbulent second decade of the new century, one that is going to get even more unmanageable, one that is defined by anger at the Manhattan-Beltway elites who have so failed the country. Expertise on the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea isn’t an asset when Israel and Iran are on the brink of war. Long and distinguished service isn’t a calling card when the house is on fire.
The next battlefields for the outsider-insider collision will be in Arkansas, where tea-party activists have endorsed Army combat veteran and Harvard Law School grad Tom Cotton over Beth Anne Rankin in the May 22 primary, and in Texas, where the May 29 primary to replace Kay Bailey Hutchison in the U.S. Senate finds former Texas Solicitor General Ted Cruz gaining on Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst in much the same way that Mourdock caught, passed, and then drew away from Senator Lugar. Cruz is very much the tea-party candidate, but armed with extraordinary credentials and charisma and a grassroots fundraising base.
If Cotton or Cruz wins, that will be a second big win for the tea-party movement, and if both triumph, the movement that many wrote off as a spent force will be shown to be anything but. Whatever its name, there remains a potent anti-Beltway, anti-old-school energy in the grassroots that is looking for candidates who will go to D.C. to fight D.C., not join in its merry ways.