The Tea Party Express vs. the Senate's Longest-Serving Republican

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After fueling a wave of primary upsets in 2010, the movement's largest election-spending group targets one of the last of the old guard

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2012 INDIANA SENATE BASH
FIGHT NIGHT: MAY 8

IN THE PURPLE CORNER: SEN. DICK "GROUND BISON" LUGAR (R-IND.) ... The longest-serving Republican currently in the U.S. Senate, tied with Utah's Orrin Hatch ... Winner of SIX consecutive Senate races in the great state of Indiana ... This mild-mannered Midwesterner is the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and was instrumental in passing the Obama-backed New START Russian arms treaty last year ...

The third-most-liberal Republican in National Journal's 2010 vote rankings, this Hoosier is an old-school compromiser ... A relic of the level-headed, "cooling saucer" Senate ... He's so moderate, Obama used photos of him in a 2008 campaign ad ... Can Lugar defend his belt as a California upstart swings into the Hoosier State?


IN THE BRIGHT RED CORNER: TEA PARTY EXPRESS ... Scourge of the GOP establishment ... Terror of the incumbent ... The group that brought us Sharron "Down with Social Security" Angle and Christine "I'm Not a Witch" O'Donnell ... Responsible for the wave of surprise tea-party upsets over established Republican senators in 2010, Tea Party Express has endorsed state Treasurer Richard Mourdock in the Indiana Senate primary.

The heavy-hitting tea-party group is led by the savvy, California-based GOP strategist Sal Russo and a rag-tag staff of movement miscreants who rake in small-dollar donations and spend them on low-budget grassroots-looking ads ... Tea Party Express is UNDEFEATED in Senate primary contests and has moved up from Welterweight for this Super Middleweight showdown in America's heartland.


TALE OF THE TAPE

RECORD: Lugar is 6-0 in Senate elections since 1976, when he first won office. In 2010, Tea Party Express practically made Nevada's Sharron Angle, Delaware's Christine O'Donnell, and Alaska's Joe Miller, pouring money into their primaries when almost no one had heard of them. As polling improved, other conservative groups followed on. Throw in a win for Utah Sen. Mike Lee (R), and we'll call Tea Party Express 4-0 lifetime in GOP Senate primaries.

MONEY: Lugar will have the edge here, with $3.5 million in the bank as of June 30. But Tea Party Express has been known to drop serious money, for a group that takes in low-dollar donations from across the country. It spent a reported $925,000 on Angle's GOP primary, then another $587 on Miller's. Tea Party Express drew attention to those candidates and helped them raise national money; three weeks after her primary, Angle had raised a total of $3.5 million. So with the group's help, the Indiana treasurer Mourdock stands a chance at raising enough to threaten Lugar.

More importantly, Indiana isn't a terribly expensive state for campaigns. Its largest city is Indianapolis, meaning no high-dollar media markets. Tea Party Express's money will go a longer way here than it would in California, New York, Texas, or Florida.

Expect the conservative Club for Growth to help out with anti-Lugar spending. That group has already aired ads attacking Lugar this summer, and, though it hasn't endorsed yet, it spent on some of the same GOP primaries as Tea Party Express in 2010.

POLLING: Both sides have released optimistic polls. A poll sponsored by the Club for Growth showed him behind by two percentage points in July. Days later, Lugar's campaign countered with a poll showing him up 14. Too early to tell.

MOMENTUM: It all hinges on the state of the tea party. Last year, the movement dominated Republican Senate primaries, as untested tea partiers shocked everybody by knocking off Republicans that were thought safe as recently, in the case of Alaska's Lisa Murkowski, as a few days before her primary contest. Has the heat of the movement died down since last summer?

A recent CNN poll showed that nearly half (49 percent) of Republicans supported the tea party, while half (51 percent) had no opinion or opposed it. If Mourdock is a stand-in for the national movement, the race could be close.

WHO WILL WIN? As Indiana's current state treasurer, Mourdock has a better resume than Tea Party Express's previous success stories. Miller, Angle, and O'Donnell won their primaries with no state governing or legislative experience. They toed the tea-party line as substitutes for its ideology.

Lugar has represented Indiana for 34 years -- longer than the most notable Republican senators bounced by tea partiers in 2010, Utah's Bob Bennett (18 years) and Alaska's Murkowski (12 years). But in bouts between the seasoned pro and the hot young upstart, things can go either way. Ali lost to Frazier in their first encounter.

Still, the 79-year-old Lugar should hit the gym, jump some rope, and try to revive his right hook.

Image credit: Reuters

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Chris Good is a political reporter for ABC News. He was previously an associate editor at The Atlantic and a reporter for The Hill.

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