Tea Party Still a Threat to Lugar and Hatch
Policy + Politics

Tea Party Still a Threat to Lugar and Hatch

Yuri Gripas/Reuters

Republicans Richard Lugar of Indiana and Orrin Hatch of Utah were sworn in as freshman senators the same day 35 years ago. They rose to the highest echelons of their party on Capitol Hill, and now they are both fighting for their political lives under siege by the Tea Party.

Their biggest sins included growing old and frequently working across the aisle on major issues in their areas of expertise, including health care, taxes and finance, agriculture and foreign affairs. Hatch frequently worked in tandem with Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, the late Democratic lion of the Senate. And one of Lugar’s greatest achievements was working with former Democratic senator Sam Nunn of Georgia to pass the Cooperative Threat Reduction program that paid Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan to dismantle and destroy their nuclear and biological weapons.

Lugar and Hatch may turn out to be the Senate’s biggest survivors or simply high profile road kill this political season. Last weekend, Hatch finished first in a Utah Republican nominating convention but fell just shy of the 60 percent he needed to avoid a runoff next month. Lugar has weathered the worst of a Tea Party assault  and is running neck and neck or just ahead of challenger Richard Mourdock, depending on the polls you believe.

Plagued by persistent questions about his residency and expenditure of official funds, the mild mannered, silver-haired Lugar has been on the defensive because of negative ads from Mourdock and the Club for Growth. A poll released by Mourdock's campaign last week showed the two Republican rivals in a statistical tie, whereas Lugar held a seven-point lead in a nonpartisan poll released the previous week.

Regardless, Lugar appeared chipper and optimistic that he would win the May 8 primary as he chatted with reporters outside the Senate chamber Tuesday afternoon. “I’m not looking at myself as a casualty,” he said. “Survivor is the correct word, actually. Quite healthy, and I believe we’re going to win two weeks from now.”

Questioned about the Tea Party and its potential for bringing him down, Lugar noted that some elements of the party have opposed him, while others in Hamilton County, one of the fastest growing counties in the country, have supported him. “So let’s be clear,” Lugar said. “It’s not a monolithic movement in Indiana.”

Nor anywhere else, for that matter.

Only 18 months after the Tea Party helped Republicans win control of the House and struck terror in the hearts of more mainstream Republicans and Democrats, the movement is losing popularity and influence in Washington and throughout the country.

A recent ABC News/Washington Post poll found that 41 percent of Americans still identify as supporters of the low-tax, limited-government movement, down from a high of 47 percent last September. Half of those polled said that the more they hear about the Tea Party, the less they like it compared to 27 percent who say that they like it more. Much of the decline in Tea Party backing can be traced to younger voters, the poll found. Support has dropped among young adults from 51 percent to 31 percent since last fall.

With the arrival of an army of hard-charging conservative freshmen House and Senate members in January 2011 – many who rode to victory under the Tea Party banner of deficit reduction and tax cuts—House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and other GOP leaders were prodded to challenge the status quo by attacking President Obama’s budget and downsizing government. The Tea Party freshmen forced the leadership’s hand repeatedly, and were responsible in part for a crisis atmosphere that has pervaded Washington for two years.

Some off that has subsided as the freshmen turned their attention to building a record of achievement and raising campaign money. The network of Tea Party organizations and affiliates, which never attempted to create a unified front, have begun to drift apart or go their own ways.

Tea Party activism prevailed in Senate races in Florida (Marco Rubio) and Kentucky (Rand Paul), but the fringe, off-the-chart candidates they managed to nominate in Delaware, Colorado and Nevada cost the GOP seats and the  opportunity to depose Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada. Now,  they have set their sights on Hatch and Lugar, hoping to bump them aside to make room for younger and more conservative activists.

But the two elder statesman are putting up a fight.

Hatch saw his Utah Senate colleague, Republican Robert Bennett, 79, get blindsided as Tea Party forces stacked the state convention and denied him re-nomination in May 2010.  For a while, it looked as if Hatch -- the longest-serving senator from Utah – might be the next to go down.

Conservative activists complained about Hatch's support of the government bailout of the U.S. auto industry and TARP -- the Wall Street bailout -- as reasons to keep Hatch from serving a seventh term. Moreover, the Tea Party group Freedom Works, lead  by former  Republican House Majority Leader Dick Armey of Texas, actively worked to unseat Hatch.

Hatch toughened his rhetoric, raised more than $6 million, and scored his first perfect 100 rating from the American Conservative Union. He also persuaded Rep. Jason Chaffetz, his most formidable potential challenger, not to enter the race, while touting his endorsement from GOP presidential frontrunner Mitt Romney. Hatch came within a few dozen votes of winning the nomination outright over the weekend, but now must face a challenge from state Sen. Dan Liljenquist in a June runoff. Hatch said that far from being disappointed by the weekend vote, he was grateful for getting this far. He described himself accurately as a “tough old bird.”

Lugar also saw the need to start campaigning early and hired a campaign manager in the fall of 2010. The one-time chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee and a senior member of the Agriculture Committee built an extensive network of campaign volunteers and by the first of this year amassed a 10-to-1 cash advantage over state Treasurer Richard Mourdock.

But things quickly soured for Lugar after his residency outside the state surfaced as the dominant issue of the campaign. He botched questions about the address on his driver's license: an Indianapolis home he sold in 1977. He had to switch his voter ID to his farm in Indianapolis after the local election board ruled this year that he couldn't vote using the 1977 address, according to media reports. Lugar, who owns a home in Virginia, also repaid the U.S. Treasury $14,700 last month that his Senate office paid for his hotel stays in Indiana.

 Conservatives have rallied around Mourdock, a geologist and quiet campaigner who three years ago challenged the Chrysler bankruptcy terms in the U.S. Supreme Court. The Club for Growth, National Rifle Association, Citizens United, Hoosiers for Conservative Senate and Freedom Works, a Tea Party umbrella group, have endorsed him.
As the race has tightened, the exchanges have become more intense and bitter. In a Mourdock radio ad released Monday, the campaign attacked Lugar for living outside the state since he first became senator in 1976, repeating a major rallying cry for critics of the veteran senator.  "During those 36 years in Washington, Dick Lugar lost touch with Hoosier conservative values and became Obama's favorite Republican," the narrator says.

In a hard-hitting rejoinder last week, Lugar's campaign commercial  pointed to an error on Mourdock's recent tax returns claiming thousands of dollars in extra homestead deductions. Murdock said he had attempted to fix that mistake years ago but said his paperwork had been lost by the state, resulting in a delay. The Marion County Auditor's Office has since taken responsibility for not removing the error when requested by Mourdock.

But during his conversation with reporters yesterday at the U.S. Capitol, Lugar wouldn’t let Mourdock off the hook. “I would simply say that he took homestead deductions for three years that he should not have taken,” he said, adding that it was an issue of character. “It’s pretty straight forward.”

As for criticism that he hasn’t devoted enough of his energy to promoting conservative causes, Lugar noted that he had 100 percent voting ratings this year from Chamber of Commerce, and the National Federation of Independent Business, among others. “I’m a conservative who understands business and jobs – who actually understands the economy as opposed to some ethereal version conjured up by somebody who has virtually no experience in administration, legislation or any of the issues we are now talking about,” Lugar said.

Asked whether he thought the Tea Party has been a “positive” political movement, he replied, “I’ll wait and see how things go. ”