Why Dick Lugar Will Be the Tea Party's Only 2012 Victim

The Indiana Republican's defeat at the hands of conservative activists isn't the start of another anti-establishment wave -- it's the exception to this year's rule.

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Associated Press

It wasn't long after the polls closed in Indiana Tuesday that a chant went up at the headquarters of FreedomWorks, the national Tea Party group: "HATCH IS NEXT! HATCH IS NEXT!"

The occasion was the defeat of Sen. Dick Lugar, the latest centrist Republican to be felled by the insurgent conservative movement, and the reference was to Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch, the next Republican on whom the activists have set their sights. But the Tea Party had better celebrate while it can. Lugar's might well be the only scalp it claims in the 2012 election cycle.

Unlike 2010, when the Tea Party came out of nowhere to terrorize incumbents and establishmentarians in Republican Senate primaries, 2012 is shaping up as a disappointment for the Tea Party. In race after race across the country, conservative challengers are likely to lose or have failed to make a play. Rather than the leading edge of a trend, Lugar's defeat appears to be the exception that proves the rule.

Just look at Utah, the subject of Tuesday night's chanting. FreedomWorks and others are rejoicing at having forced six-term Sen. Hatch into a primary; he got 59.2 percent of state convention delegates last month, just short of the 60 percent required to secure the nomination and bypass the primary vote. But there's almost no way Hatch will lose the primary. He got a majority in the convention, where delegates tend to be more conservative than primary voters. Furthemore, Mitt Romney, with whom Hatch has aligned himself, will be on the Utah primary ballot; in 2008, Romney got nearly 90 percent of the Mormon-heavy state's primary vote.

National conservatives' next favorite target has got to be Texas, where a bright young Cuban-American conservative named Ted Cruz has the endorsement of Jim DeMint's Senate Conservatives Fund, the Tea Party Express, and FreedomWorks. Yet Cruz has struggled to gain traction against the favorite, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, a multimillionaire rancher and GOP good ol' boy.

DeMint's PAC has poured nearly $1 million into the race, and Cruz has ardently worked the national conservative circuit. But in Texas, "he hasn't quite caught fire," said Austin-based strategist and commentator Jason Stanford. Among Texas conservatives, "There's some angst about it. If you're a die-hard Republican, you don't really trust Dewhurst. But the smart money is, there's not even going to be a runoff." That is, most think Dewhurst can win a majority of the primary vote.

It's the same story in other states. In Wisconsin, the conservative challenger, former Rep. Mark Neumann, is a long shot behind the moderate former governor, Tommy Thompson. In Virginia, Jamie Radtke, who had hoped to claim the Tea Party mantle, has fizzled in her primary challenge to former Sen. George Allen. In New Mexico, moderate former Rep. Heather Wilson looks like a lock to become the Republican nominee, despite an attempt by businessman Greg Sowards to dethrone her from the right.

And then there's Florida, where former state Rep. Adam Hasner hoped to carry the Tea Party banner against Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson. Hasner thought he could repeat the 2010 success of Marco Rubio, who came from behind to knock out the ultimate moderate-establishment GOP powerhouse, then-Gov. Charlie Crist. Hasner was up against Crist's former chief of staff, George LeMieux.

But despite a good early reception from local Tea Party groups, Hasner just couldn't get off the ground. And then Rep. Connie Mack IV, the well-connected son of a former senator, got in the race, and Hasner's fundraising dried up. Hasner, discouraged, dropped out of the Senate race to run for an open House seat instead.

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Molly Ball is a staff writer covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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