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Three Tea Party Primaries to Watch in 2012

Two Years Later, Another Round of Primary Battles

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Three Tea Party Primaries to Watch in 2012

US Senator Richard Lugar Faces a Tough Re-election Bid Against a Tea Party Challenger

Chip Somodeville, Getty Images

While the Republican primary for president might not have featured many tea party candidates, a number of 2012 races for US Senate are shaping up to be classic battles between up-and-coming conservatives and the establishment. Here is a rundown of some of the top tea party conservatives who have a shot at knocking off the more establishment-preferred candidates.

One big change between 2010 and 2012 is the surprising drop-off in strong tea party contenders. While tea party conservatives challenged in just about every race four years ago, the results were somewhat mixed. The tea party scored big with senate candidates Marco Rubio (FL), Rand Paul (KY), Mike Lee (UT), Ron Johnson (WI), and Pat Toomey (PA). These candidates were able to deliver a concise, consistent conservative message.

One trend that seems to have dissipated this cycle is the rush to select any candidate, no matter the qualification, so long as the candidate is opposing the "establishment" candidate. Sharon Angle (NV), Ken Buck (CO), and Christine O'Donnell (DE) all lost should-have-won contests in 2010. All three candidates polled considerably worse than their primary challengers against Democrat incumbents, but were selected based on a perceived anti-establishment pedigree. While conservatives should support the most conservative candidate, it's also important to select electable, consistent, and vetted ones.

Indiana: Richard Mourdock vs. Incumbent Richard Lugar

In 2008, Richard Lugar, who ties with Orrin Hatch as being the longest serving Republican in the US Senate, seemed perfectly at ease with the idea of an Obama victory in the presidential election. He backed, without hesitation, Obama's far-left Supreme Court nominees. In his thirty-four year Senate history, Lugar racked up moderate-to-liberal positions on immigration, gun control, earmarks, foreign policy, and abortion. This has made Lugar a rich target for tea party and conservative opposition.

Challenging Lugar in the Republican primary is Indiana Treasurer Richard Mourdock, a candidate who enjoys the backing of conservative groups FreedomWorks, the Club for Growth, and Indiana tea party group Hoosiers for a Conservative Senate. But the biggest endorsement came from former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, who is still held in very high regard by the conservative base. She helped propel a large number of primary candidates to victory in 2010, so don't be surprised to see Mourdock pull out a big win here.

Texas: Ted Cruz vs. David Dewhurst

Texas is one of those states, unlike Massachusetts, where nominating the best conservative possible will almost always lead to a good outcome. Thanks to a strong Republican electorate, the eventual GOP nominee will almost certainly win in November. With longtime moderate and establishment Republican Kay Bailey Hutchison finally retiring, the tea party has a great opportunity to widen their ranks in the US Senate.

The top establishment pick is Lt. Governor David Dewhurst, and his big knock has been a less-than-stellar handling of the Texas budget crisis as well as a tendency to too quickly seek compromise with Democrats rather than stick with conservative principles. Enter Ted Cruz, a tea party rising star who is crafting a primary path similar to the one that Marco Rubio successfully forged in Florida two years earlier.

Like Rubio, Cruz started out with around 1-3% in polls at the start of the campaign but has slowly worked his way into a competitive position. At just 42 years of age, Cruz has presented oral arguments to the Supreme Court in favor of a number of conservative causes, and won. Beyond an impressive legal career, Cruz also served as Texas Solicitor General and Deputy Attorney General at the US Department of Justice. His conservative credentials are stellar and he enjoys the backing of a number of tea party senators including Jim DeMint, Rand Paul, and Pat Toomey.

Utah: Dan Liljenquist vs. Orrin Hatch

Joining Richard Lugar as the other longest-serving GOP senator is Orrin Hatch of Utah. Like Texas, Utah is solidly Republican and offers a great opportunity to elect the most competent conservative available. In 2010, Senator Bob Bennett became one of the tea party victims in the GOP primary. Although he had a generally conservative voting record, conservatives felt it could have been better and his presence in the US Senate stronger. As a result, Bennett was booted and Mike Lee eventually won the GOP primary and subsequent general election.

Hatch is looking to avoid Bennett's fate. A series of votes over the past decade placed Hatch as a top target for defeat by conservatives. Although Hatch has advocated regularly for a balanced budget amendment, he also has regularly voted to raise the debt ceiling, supported numerous 2008 bailouts, and did little to stop the Bush era government spending spree. Adding fuel to the fire, Hatch joined liberal senator Dick Durbin in crafting the quasi-amnesty DREAM Act.

While many conservatives hoped Congressman Jason Chaffetz would run against Hatch, he ultimately decided against a run. Dan Liljenquist, a former state senator, was the last opponent standing following the Utah convention that failed to give an outright victory to Hatch. Liljenquist has an impressive business resume and he spearheaded a number of fiscally responsible reforms while in the state legislature, despite a short tenure there. Liljenquist has received the backing of FreedomWorks and popular conservative activist Michelle Malkin.

Other Tea Party Races to Watch

A handful of other 2012 Senate races also feature candidates that fit the tea party conservative mold quite well. In Ohio, Josh Mandel has already locked up the GOP nomination and will face incumbent Democrat Sherrod Brown in November. In Missouri, both Sarah Steelman and Todd Akin have tea party support and a decent shot at defeating incumbent Democrat Claire McCaskill, while a third candidate, John Brunner, also has some tea party backing.

Conservative outsiders can have another good showing against Democrats in 2012, but the candidates must first post victories in their respective primaries. While tea party backed candidates had few problems winning primaries in 2010, the mood has change somewhat and voters are less likely to pull the trigger on just any anti-establishment candidate.

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