The tea party has already reshaped national politics, sending a large cadre of freshman Republicans to Congress to block spending and attempt to reboot the economy by cutting regulations on industry and small business. But the looming battle in Indiana portends what could be a longer-lasting legacy for the small-government movement that emerged after the TARP bailouts of 2008.
"I think what we're seeing is that as the tea party becomes more vocal and prominent, it is exerting itself on the larger party," says Robert Schmuhl, an American studies professor at Notre Dame, in South Bend, Ind. "It's possible we are reaching a stage in our politics where the polarization is so profound that a figure like Richard Lugar seems to be lost in that environnment."
Tea party groups overwhelmingly endorsed state treasurer Richard Mourdock on Saturday for next year's Indiana Senate race, casting all but one vote for the tea party favorite who's seeking to deny Lugar a seventh term. Despite his lower name recognition, some early polls show Mr. Mourdock within hailing distance of Lugar.
On the other hand, while Mourdock's fundraising has been anemic, Lugar's war chest is huge and he counts among his political supporters popular Gov. Mitch Daniels, his political protégé.