How a Dedicated Group of Tea Party Activists Toppled Richard Lugar

Learning from the movement's stumbles in 2010, a grassroots collection laid the groundwork to defeat the six-term Indiana senator.

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Richard Mourdock (left) and Richard Lugar at an April debate in Indianapolis. / Associated Press

The Tea Party, an unsteady movement that was beginning to resemble a wayward ship in 2012, found its north star in Indiana on Tuesday night.

State Treasurer Richard Mourdock defeated six-term Sen. Richard Lugar in the Republican primary, a victory owing to the incumbent's inept campaign, the outside groups that lashed him on the air, and a story about his out-of-state residency that would not go away. But well before those issues got a foothold, a grassroots-driven, local movement to unseat Lugar was well under way.

Sixteen months ago, a collection of Tea Party organizers met in the city of Tipton. Their goal was to address flaws in the movement that were exposed in 2010, when infighting and competing agendas largely driven by national groups and consultants hindered its ability to make lasting gains. What resulted was "Hoosiers for a Conservative Senate," a network of 60 Tea Party groups dedicated to retiring Lugar.

"We didn't have the unity [in 2010]. Once we built the foundation of unity, we went out and educated people about Lugar's voting record," said Monica Boyer, one of the group's cofounders.

The group endorsed Mourdock after a September straw poll showed that he was the preferred choice of conservative activists. National groups like the Tea Party Express that in 2010 were responsible for the rise of Christine O'Donnell in Delaware and Joe Miller in Alaska had yet to enter fray in a major way. The national group FreedomWorks had met with Boyer's organization, but it didn't jump in with full force until Mourdock emerged as the consensus candidate.

"None of the outside groups were in here at that time," Boyer said. "We actually asked FreedomWorks to get involved."

"It was at that point that we knew, OK, this is real, they've made a decision, and they came to us; and they said, 'OK, we're ready, we want some support now,' " said FreedomWorks Vice President Russ Walker.

After it was clear that no other Republicans were going to get into the race, the influential antitax Club for Growth decided to endorse Mourdock and spent huge sums of cash on ads blasting Lugar. Around the same time, the Lugar campaign's ineffective response to stories about his residency began to receive more attention from voters. Mourdock's fundraising began to ramp up. The resulting concoction was toxic for Lugar.

Mourdock's competence as a candidate helped his cause. He hasn't yet committed the kind of gaffes we saw from O'Donnell, Sharron Angle, or Miller in 2010. Notably, he doesn't refer to himself as a Tea Party candidate, either. But that doesn't bother activists. "I don't want him to be painted in a corner," Boyer said. "I think that's what happened in the other states" like Nevada, where Angle ran.

Democrats are already moving to paint Mourdock into a very familiar corner. Anticipating a win on Tuesday afternoon, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee compared Mourdock to Ken Buck, the failed 2010 Senate nominee in Colorado.

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