RICHARD Lugar's sixth term in the U.S. Senate will be his last. Tea party forces in Indiana saw to that, helping produce a landslide victory for their candidate in the Republican primary this week.
Challenger Richard Mourdock, a two-term state treasurer, won with 60 percent of the vote. Mourdock succeeded in painting Lugar as someone who had lost touch with his constituents after 36 years in Washington. The Republican base, he said, “was very disillusioned, very disconnected” from Lugar.
The victory is being celebrated by tea party groups as a sign that the potency shown in the 2010 elections is still there. That year saw tea party-backed candidates win some high-profile races, including Sens. Marco Rubio in Florida and Rand Paul in Kentucky. “We should all be excited and proud that we sent a message loud and clear that the Tea Party is alive and well in 2012,” the national Tea Party Express crowed in an email.
But tea party candidates also lost their share of races two years ago, too, such as in Nevada and Alaska. And here in Oklahoma, tea party-backed candidates have yet to make much of a dent.
In the Republican gubernatorial primary in 2010, tea party favorite Randy Brogdon made a solid showing, winning 39 percent of the vote while Mary Fallin — with much greater name recognition after three terms as lieutenant governor and two terms in the U.S. House — got 54 percent.
Other tea party-backed candidates have fared poorly here. In 2011, two who ran for seats on the Oklahoma City Council were soundly defeated. U.S. Rep. Tom Cole, R-Moore, easily won his Republican primary against a tea party candidate two years ago. Tea party rallies held in our state were aimed more at what was going on in Washington than what was occurring in our state Capitol.
Why? Because the Republicans who control the state House and Senate are already plenty conservative. Their beliefs about government spending and social issues align well with those of the tea party. The push seen in other parts of the country to throw out Republican incumbents, at either the state or federal level, hasn't taken hold here. Dozens of incumbents on both sides of the aisle drew no opponents this year.
Some GOP legislators are being opposed by challengers who accuse them of not being conservative enough. This led some of those incumbents to try to appeal to the far right by sponsoring bills favored by cultural conservatives. But the reaction last month by ultraconservative groups to a decision by the House GOP caucus not to hear a personhood bill didn't exactly do that side any favors in the court of public opinion. Even staunchly conservative House members were offended.
Is Lugar's defeat in Indiana a harbinger of tea party success in ousting incumbents here this summer and fall? Probably not. On the whole, Oklahoma conservatives seem well pleased with the Republicans serving in the Legislature. Disillusionment and disconnectedness aren't mentioned much.