When Newt Gingrich's campaign finally died last Wednesday, it took with it the hopes of Tea Party and other conservative groups to lift one of their own into the White House.
But it did not end their interest and involvement in the 2012 election cycle. It only shifted it.
"Where do conservatives go from here?" asked Judson Phillips, founder of Tea Party Nation (and a regular contributor to U.S. News's Debate Club). "We must put conservatives in Congress. With conservatives in Congress, we can control the agenda. If you understand Romney, you understand how this is possible."
Phillips says Romney is more a manager than executor of a reliably conservative agenda. Strong conservatives in Congress, he says, could keep Romney on the reservation and perhaps even improve his current shaky standing with the Tea Party.
But the Tea Party faces its own moment of truth this cycle. Its boisterous, headline-grabbing rallies are a thing of the past. Its poll numbers have slipped from a commanding high to even or worse. Those extremely opposed outnumber those extremely supportive of its agenda by big and growing numbers. Moreover, Republican leadership in the House openly defies its wishes, and Democrats have begun to think they can use Tea Party affiliation against their opponents.
Tea Party leaders say they're working as hard as ever to train activists, establish campaign infrastructure, and move forward behind the scenes. Americans for Prosperity has delivered suitcases full of cell phones for activists to use in phone banks. They say the movement has matured and now speaks directly to lawmakers rather than through the bullhorn and bully pulpit of the protest movement and that the decline in headlines should not be interpreted as a decline in influence.
But unless the Tea Party can deliver this cycle, unless it can push favored candidates to victory and be seen as having played key roles in those victories, its future may be limited indeed.
That's what makes this Tuesday so important. That's the day Indiana voters will go to the polls to choose between six-term U.S. Sen. Richard Lugar and his Republican primary opponent, state treasurer Richard Mourdock. Mourdock has the backing of the Tea Party (and, full disclosure, CivicForumPAC, which I chair, though I have not personally given any money to either candidate). Lugar is the quintessential establishment candidate. A victory for Mourdock says Tea Party endorsements still mean something. A victory for Lugar means establishment Republicans will move against the Tea Party and likely reduce its ability to put forth candidates or policy proposals.
The Tea Party—a major player in the 2010 midterm elections; Republicans took over the House largely because of its support—has few opportunities to shine in 2012. If it doesn't succeed in this race or in the Scott Walker recall election in Wisconsin, it will be unlikely to have any significance in this cycle. And it's not far from a total washout in 2012 to permanent obsolescence.
Fortunately for the Tea Party, it has picked a good place to make its stand. Lugar positions himself as a statesman willing to work across party lines at a time when sharp elbows and partisanship carry the day. He has angered conservatives with his votes for Supreme Court Justices Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor. He has an F rating from the National Rifle Association, a tepid 75 from the American Conservative Union, and a 73—two points below the disappointing Republican average—in the more economically focused Heritage Action for America ratings.
Most polls are well within the margin of error, and Lugar shined in recent debates. But Mourdock has made progress on catching up in name ID and fundraising since he is one of the few candidates to whom conservatives can contribute now and make a difference.
But this is not much about Richard Mourdock or even Richard Lugar. It is about whether true conservatives—as opposed to Republicans—still can win elections as they did in 2010. If they can, Romney will have to blunt his instincts to tack back toward the center, and all down-ballot elections will be fought on more rightward terrain. If not, the centrists, the Washington insiders, and the establishment will be free to return to business as usual.
And it won't be enough to take down Lugar. Many Republicans remain bitter at the Tea Party over Christine O'Donnell in Delaware and Sharron Angle in Nevada, hard-core conservative candidates who, those Republicans contend, cost the party control of the Senate for the last two years. This time, the Tea Party must deliver in the general election as well. And it won't be easy. Democrat Joe Donnelly, a well-known and well-funded congressman from the northern Indiana district that includes South Bend and Michigan City, awaits the winner.
Aaron Blake of The Washington Post says the Tea Party helped Republicans win the House in 2010 but "it could help Democrats retain the White House" this year. It may be a little early to go that far. But if you see Dick Lugar smiling on Tuesday night, it will mean the Tea Party is in real trouble.