WASHINGTON — What does a longtime Republican senator with a national reputation for working well with Democrats do in the face of a potentially career-ending tea party challenge? If you're Richard Lugar of Indiana, you tell them to "get real."
If you're Olympia Snowe of Maine, you fight off the "Snowe Removal" effort by making key alliances with tea party activists and highlighting your record of fiscal conservatism.
And if you're Orrin Hatch of Utah, you woo them.
Lugar, Snowe and Hatch are all on notice that their approach to governance may no longer be welcome.
It's clear the tea party – not even 2 years old – isn't going away anytime soon after huge success in last fall's congressional elections. Dozens of its favorite candidates – Republicans who champion limited government and sharply reduced spending – won House and Senate races. Now, the tea party is empowered and turning its attention to vulnerable Republicans up for re-election in 2012. How the three GOP senators handle the tea party threat will go a long way to determining whether the outcome mirrors that of 2010.
In Indiana, the tea party is organizing to unite behind one candidate who could challenge Lugar in a primary. In Maine, the plan is for a spring "Snowe Removal." In Utah, Hatch's efforts have begun to pay off, but the junior senator, Mike Lee, who replaced Sen. Robert Bennett in a tea party upset in 2010, has said he won't endorse Hatch for re-election.
Unlike in 2010, when incumbents were surprised to be overtaken by upstarts, these longtime senators can't say they were caught off guard.
Lugar, 78, is telling tea party activists to "get real" if they want to take on the New START nuclear arms reduction treaty. They also oppose his support for President Barack Obama's Supreme Court nominees and for the DREAM act, legislation that would give a faster path to citizenship to the children of illegal immigrants if they graduate from college or serve two years in the military.
There is also a more abstract complaint about Lugar's genial disposition, something that has for years been viewed as a strength as he worked with Democrats. They want someone pugnacious, less willing to make deals with Democrats.
"We feel like we can do better and get someone who will listen to us more," said Monica Boyer, one of the co-founders of Hoosiers for Conservative Senate, a tea party-inspired group. "We feel he needs to be challenged."
Top Indiana tea party leaders recently met to coalesce behind one Lugar challenger. State Treasurer Richard Mourdock is expected to announce his candidacy later this month.
Apart from some quiet efforts – Lugar has met in private with tea party leaders in his state, including Boyer – Lugar has shown no signs that he will change his message.
"Sen. Lugar just expected this. He's good-humored about it," said Mark Helmke, a senior adviser to Lugar. "He's going to continue to do what he's always done."
Hatch, for his part, is doing anything but what he's always done. The senator who teamed up with a liberal icon, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, to create a government program to provide health insurance for poor children is now showing up at tea party events, sounding far more partisan than he has in his six terms in the Senate.
Hatch has good reason to be nervous. After seeing Bennett, a longtime colleague, defeated amid a tea party revolt in Utah's byzantine GOP nominating convention last year, Hatch immediately signaled he would not be caught flat-footed. He began assiduously courting the tea party in his home state. Now Hatch emphasizes his view that Obama's health care overhaul is a monstrous job killer that would raise taxes and threaten liberty.
"He's clearly been reinventing himself a bit," said Matthew Burbank, a political science professor at the University of Utah. "When George Bush was president, you didn't hear him complaining a lot about spending."
Hatch, 76, attended an event last week billed as a tea party town hall. The stately Hatch sat next to conservative upstarts such as Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota and Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky. Hatch went out of his way to speak the language of the movement.
"It's a real good thing for us to see that we're finally getting people up in arms . willing to do the things that pull this country where it really ought to be, which is a free-market system without government intrusion in every step of our lives," he said.
The charm offensive has worked, to an extent. Hatch recently secured a promise from the national Tea Party Express that he wouldn't be targeted in 2012 – assurances that Lugar and Snowe have not received. But the peculiarities of Utah's political system, which requires candidates to win over their party's most fervent supporters in a convention just to advance to a primary election, mean that Hatch could still be vulnerable.
In Maine, which has a conventional primary, Snowe is unlikely to face the same purity test. Her home state also has a much more moderate streak than Utah or Indiana. Still, her willingness to buck her party, particularly on social issues, has raised talk of a primary challenge.
The Tea Party Express has announced its disapproval of her votes for stimulus funding and her support of the Supreme Court nominations of Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor.
Snowe swept to a third term in 2006 with 74 percent of the vote. But four years later she saw an unexpected conservative resurgence in her state, with tea party-backed Paul LePage capturing the governor's mansion and Republicans winning both chambers of the Legislature.
Snowe has played up her credentials as a fiscal conservative, and LePage, who counts Snowe's late husband as a mentor, has said he will back her, even if a more conservative challenger emerges. That's payback for Snowe's backing of LePage's gubernatorial bid last year.
Associated Press writer Andrew Miga contributed to this report.