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Lugar and Dewhurst Test the Power of the Tea Party

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The catastrophic performance of this year's Tea Party-endorsed presidential candidates has inspired some to imagine that the movement is dead. That kind of optimism is only possible by ignoring red state politics. The growing power of the Tea Party is apparent all up and down the Republican primary ballot in red states. There's no better place to see the limits of that power tested than in two upcoming Senate primaries in Indiana and Texas.

Longtime Republican Senator Richard Lugar is facing a challenge Tuesday from Indiana State Treasurert Richard Mourdock. Lugar, a conservative's conservative by any rational definition earned his RiNO-tag by telling the Tea Party to "get real."

Lugar's challenger is an unusually gray character for a Tea Party champion. Richard Mourdock is unlikely to claim there are communists in Congress or publicly deny that he's a witch. He's part of a new crop opportunists, otherwise mundane political operatives who are enhancing their careers with a carefully calibrated extremist appeal.

Mourdock is benefiting from the support of some of the wildest characters on the far right, including Michele Bachmann and Sharron Angle. If the Tea Party defeats Lugar then Indiana's Senate seat will potentially be in play this fall.

In Texas, longtime Lt. Governor David Dewhurst is running for the Senate seat being vacated by Kay Bailey Hutchinson. After an awkward start in politics -- he was once described by a Republican senator as "weird shy" -- Dewhurst has been an unusually solid figure through a rocky period of transition in the Legislature. With his dour personal style, Dewhurst's remarkable success managing the state senate is something of a wonder.

Dewhurst's common-sense pragmatism places his Republican authenticity in doubt. He has yet to threaten secession, claim to be "at war" with the federal government, shoot a coyote while jogging or otherwise demonstrate his ideological machismo. As a result the race has drawn some enthusiastic challengers.

The Tea Party has mostly congealed around attorney and political newcomer Ted Cruz. It may be surprising to hear the Tea Party embrace a Canadian-born Ivy Leaguer whose father was a communist guerrilla in Cuba, but Cruz brings impeccable fundamentalist credentials to the race.

Cruz has all the message discipline of Indiana's Mourdock, plus deep, passionate ties to the farthest extremes of the Christian right. Where Mourdock seems calculating, Cruz appears to be a true believer.

Ted Cruz might be the single most articulate voice in the fundamentalist movement. In policy terms, he's as far out as anyone the GOP nominated in the 2010 cycle, but he's much more coherent than oddball characters like Sharron Angle or Christine O'Donnell.

Regardless what happens in this election, Cruz is likely to become a permanent feature of Texas politics. If Cruz upsets Dewhurst in the primary, then this November the party will test the assumption that the Republicans can't lose a statewide race in Texas.

With Indiana voting on Tuesday, a new poll shows Mourdock leading Lugar by a sizable margin. Texas' primary is still three weeks away, but Cruz has been steadily eating away at Dewhurst's lead.

The Tea Party's appeal may be waning nationally, but in the Republican heartland they remain a potent force. The Texas and Indiana Senate races are a fine test of the Tea Party's ability to drive the GOP farther and farther out of the national mainstream.