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Politics

Tea Party Still Flexing Its Political Muscles

Having knocked off Senate veteran Richard Lugar, the right is now looking to battles in Wisconsin, Utah and Nebraska.

The tea party takes credit for ending the career of Sen. Richard Lugar, an Indiana Republican who is being sent packing after six terms in Washington.

But Lugar faced another formidable enemy in the May 8 primary who had as much to do with his defeat as the unhappy right -- himself.

Lugar gave tea party bankrollers Club for Growth and FreedomWorks all the ammunition they needed to cut him down when it was divulged that he owns a home in Virginia but has no residence in the state he represents. The groups saturated the airwaves with ads mocking Lugar as a missing-in-action Hoosier. The ads worked.

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A win in November by state Treasurer Richard Mourdock, who defeated Lugar, will give the right wing of the GOP added clout in the Senate. It might even embolden the tea party's leader in the upper chamber, Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC), to act on his not-so-secret desire to lead a coup early next year to topple Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY) as Senate GOP leader.

First things first, however. The tea party has its sights trained on more immediate battles before it can seriously consider a power grab. Even Mourdock's general election showdown with Democratic Rep. Joe Donnelly will move to the back burner for now.

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The June 8 recall election for Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican, is the group's more immediate challenge. The rematch of the 2010 race between Walker and Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett is likely to be as ugly as ugly gets, with the tea party's funders up against a coalition of labor organizations angered by Walker's cuts to the collective bargaining rights of public workers.

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Polls suggest that the vast majority of Wisconsin voters have already made up their minds, so the race will come down to the ground game. The side that convinces more voters to turn out will win the race.

In another race to watch, Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) dodged one bullet last month, when he finished first at the state Republican convention. He escaped the fate of former Utah Sen. Bob Bennett, who was ousted in 2010 at the state convention by tea party challengers. But Hatch isn't out of the woods yet. Because he fell short of 60% support, he still faces a June 26 runoff against former state Sen. Dan Liljenquist, a tea party supporter.

Hatch's campaign promises that he won't take anything for granted. He's been flaunting his conservative credentials and is avoiding public displays of bipartisanship that the tea party could turn into attack ads against him. He's also casting himself as a seasoned lawmaker still in touch with his constituents.

In Nebraska, tea partyers will be pleased with the outcome of the upcoming GOP Senate primary, no matter who wins. Both Republican candidates, state Attorney General Jon Bruning and state Treasurer Don Stenberg, are aligned with the group. The winner takes on former Sen. Bob Kerrey, who was recruited by Democrats after Democratic Sen. Ben Nelson announced his retirement.

No matter how those races play out, the tea party won't come close to matching its success in the watershed 2010 elections. At least 15 tea party-backed Republicans who won House seats two years ago are likely to lose in November.

Still, the tea party will remain a powerful force, packing a strong right hook that will leave mainstream Republicans with more than just one lump or two.

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