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The resounding victory of Indiana State Treasurer Richard Mourdock over six-term Senator Richard Lugar in the Indiana Republican primary resurrected the Tea Party movement as a potent force in much of the public mind. Yet some regarded Mourdock’s victory as a re-affirmation of their belief that “Big Money” determines all outcomes, and that the Tea Parties had little to do with it.

In IREHR’s analysis of these recent events, by contrast, three factors were relevant: the Tea Parties’ unanimous choice to support Mourdock; a decision by the Tea Party to begin campaigning more than twelve months before the election date; and the movement’s choice of a ground game rather than an air war significantly impacted the low-turnout election. In short, a year of coordinated efforts between national and local Tea Party groups organizing around a set of Tea Party ideas led to a primary victory and put them back into the center of the national conversation.

The Return of the “Big Money” Argument

In his post-election analysis, “Tea Party Rising? Hardly,” Markos Moulitsas, founder of the influential progressive net-roots blog Daily Kos, wrote that, “Without big outside money, the tea party is helpless to have an impact. As always, it’s the guys who write the six- and seven-figure checks who call the shots.”

Indeed, it is true that outside spending in Indiana’s Senate race reached over $4 million, according to campaign finance data. Nearly seventy percent of outside PAC money went to help Mourdock defeat Lugar. The largest outside backers of Mourdock’s bid included: the conservative Club for Growth, which spent $1.7 million; the National Rifle Association, which spent $421,899; the Tea Party SuperPAC, FreedomWorks for America which poured in over half a million dollars.

According to financial reports available from the FEC at the time of the election, however, when the candidates’ own spending is included the total financial support for Lugar was larger than that for Mourdock.


Total Contributions
(to 4/18/2012)

Total Expenditures
(to 4/18/2012)

Richard Lugar



Richard Mourdock



Combining outside PAC support and direct campaign spending, Lugar’s side spent about $8 million, compared with $4.6 million spent on Mourdock’s side. This overall spending advantage by Lugar, then, requires more of an explanation than “big outside money” when the deciding factor in the election is analyzed.

Where and how the money was spent was important, for example. The NRA and Club for Growth spent their funds on radio and television advertisements. The national Tea Party factions pumped their money into voter mobilization. For example, FreedomWorks for America paid for the printing and distribution of more than 100,000 palm cards and door hangers, 11,000 yard signs, and 11,000 bumper stickers, which were used to blanket the state. Those resources, in turn, helped energize the Tea Party base.

Preliminary figures suggest that even with a national spotlight, voter turnout for the primary election was low. Statewide, only around 19 percent of the 4.4 million registered voters in Indiana cast ballots in the primary (Democratic and Republican), according to the South Bend Tribune. About 75% of those voters participated in the Republican primary, according to press reports.




Richard G. Lugar



Richard E. Mourdock



In an election with low turnout, a strong effort to turn out voters can make the difference for any political tendency.

Indiana’s Tea Party Base

IREHR tracked 57 different local Tea Party chapters active in Indiana at the time of the election. The majority of the local chapters are aligned nationally with the Tea Party Patriots. Others maintain a connection to a statewide umbrella, the Indiana Tea Party.

These local Tea Party chapters have championed a wide range of issues: Second Amendment and survivalist “preparedness,” anti-environmental conspiracies, nativism and Islamophobia, on top of debt, bailouts, and taxes.

In addition to the membership of the local Tea Party groups, Indiana ranks 15th amongst all states in national Tea Party membership, with 8703 members of one or more of the six different national factions, as of May 2012. Per capita, however, the state is squarely in the middle, ranking 25th overall.

Unlike some states where a large percentage of local Tea Party groups have atrophied since 2010, IREHR contends that momentum from perpetual campaigning kept the Indiana grassroots strong, with only mild attrition from previous levels.

Chronology of Indiana Tea Party Campaign Activity: Getting Behind Mourdock

In March 2011, FreedomWorks joined with America ReFocused and dozens of local Tea Party groups from around the state to hold a statewide conference in Indianapolis. It is important to note that one of the reasons FreedomWorks came to Indiana was to support Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, a Tea Party favorite who promoted school vouchers, budget cuts, and Right to Work legislation. (The anti-union legislation that was introduced in February 2011 became law in February 2012.) Mourdock spoke at this gathering. The statewide event helped local Tea Party groups meet and talk with one another and began to prepare them for the campaign ahead. Following the conference, local Tea Parties organized meet-and-greet sessions with Mourdock. A small gathering in Fort Wayne, for example, took place just a couple of days after the convention.

Mourdock again took the stage at the 2011 Indianapolis Tax Day Tea Party rally on April 15, thus reaffirming his Tea Party credentials. And he was a speaker in Elkhart when the Tea Party Express 5th annual bus tour came to town.

On September 24, FreedomWorks joined with Hoosiers for a Conservative Senate and over 300 local activists for a Tea Party Convention in Greenfield, Indiana. The convention, including the straw poll where Mourdock received 96 of the 97 votes cast, helped anoint Mourdock as the Tea Party candidate in the Senate race. When Mourdock spoke to the convention after the straw poll, he compared the passion and resolve of the Tea Party activists to that of the founding fathers. Just five days after the convention in Greenfield, the Tea Party Express held a press conference to announce that they were officially endorsing Mourdock.

Two weeks after the Tea Party Convention, FreedomWorks returned to Indiana. This time they hosted their travelling “Tea Party Debt Commission” roadshow as “America’s grassroots solution to Washington’s spending problem.” And ten days later, on October 21, the FreedomWorks for America SuperPAC officially endorsed Mourdock at a small Tea Party gathering near the Indianapolis airport.

Other Tea Party factions joined in support of Mourdock. The Liberty News Network (a Tea Party project of Grassroots Action, the parent company of the Patriot Action Network) sent out a fundraising letter from the Mourdock campaign on November 22. And on the day after Christmas, the ever-caustic Judson Phillips of Tea Party Nation joined the fray, coming out against Lugar and for Mourdock in an email to supporters.

Consensus among national Tea Party factions around a single candidate was instrumental in Indiana. By contrast, in Nebraska Tea Party groups split their support in the republican Senate race: the Tea Party Express endorsed Attorney General John Bruning, FreedomWorks backed Nebraska State Treasurer Don Stenburg, and Tea Party favorite Sarah Palin added a last-minute endorsement for eventual winner state senator Deb Fischer.

During the same period, on December 14 and 15, FreedomWorks and Hoosiers for a Conservative Senate held more “Get Out the Vote” trainings, further stirring the Tea Party rank and file.

Gathering Momentum at the Tea Party Grassroots

As the New Year began, Tea Party organizing efforts kicked into full gear. On January 4, 2012, FreedomWorks for America started phone banking for Mourdock. On January 31, the smallest of the national Tea Party factions, the 1776 Tea Party (also known as, finally joined the others and emailed out information on how their members could help support Mourdock’s campaign.

Through the first months of 2012, local Tea Party gatherings became welcome venues for Mourdock campaign events. He crisscrossed the state, speaking at gatherings like the Kokomo Area Tea Party Patriots event at Victory Christian Academy on January 17. An IREHR survey of Indiana Tea Party data indicates that Mourdock was scheduled to speak to more than two dozen different local Tea Party groups, in virtually every part of the state, including groups like the Miami County Tea Party, the Owen County Tea Party group, and the Whitley County Patriots. FreedomWorks for America even rented a booth for Mourdock campaigners at the Northern Kentucky Tea Party, in the hopes of reaching downstate Indiana Tea Partiers.

Tea Party support for Mourdock and against Lugar reached a fever-pitch in late April, with the help of the Tea Party Express. On April 25, the group unleashed a new anti-Lugar radio spot. The next day, they released a new television ad. And on April 28-29 they brought the Tea Party Express bus tour through Madison, Corydon, and Fort Wayne. The Our Country Deserves Better – PAC finance reports show spending of $10,471 in the race.

The weekend before the election, FreedomWorks for America, the National Rifle Association, and 45 local Tea Party groups hosted a rally in Indianapolis, which drew hundreds.

Ideas Mattered

Richard Lugar’s analysis of why he lost is instructive. After the primary, he counted his loss on “votes for the TARP program, for government support of the auto industry, for the START Treaty, and for the confirmations of Justices Sotomayor and Kagan. I also advanced several propositions that were considered heretical by some, including the thought that Congressional earmarks saved no money and turned spending power over to unelected bureaucrats and that the country should explore options for immigration reform.”

Even before the campaign began, local Tea Party groups hammered away relentlessly on these issues, particularly anti-immigrant sentiment and opposition to the Lugar-backed DREAM Act. It wasn’t just about the money or the grassroots campaign operation, political ideas mattered. Lugar’s more moderate brand of conservatism was out-of-step with the base of Tea Party voters.

Ryan Hecker, chief operations officer for FreedomWorks for America (the FreedomWorks Super PAC) called Indiana, “ground zero” for the Tea Party. Hoping to capitalize on the momentum, ground zero now shifts to Wisconsin, where all of the national Tea Party groups have the state in their sights.

Devin Burghart

Author Devin Burghart

is vice president of IREHR. He coordinates our Seattle office, directs our research efforts, and manages our online communications. He has researched, written, and organized on virtually all facets of contemporary white nationalism since 1992, and is internationally recognized for this effort. Devin is frequently quoted as an expert by print, broadcast, and online media outlets. In 2007, he was awarded a Petra Foundation fellowship. more...

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