While the media have suggested the Tea Party is in decline, upcoming primaries in Indiana, Utah and Texas indicate that that the movement is still robust.
On Tuesday, the GOP primary in Indiana pits six-term Sen. Dick Lugar against State Treasurer Richard Mourdock, who has been endorsed by Tea Party Express and FreedomWorks.
Mourdock has leapt to a big lead, 48%-38%, according to the latest poll from Howey Politics Indiana and DePauw University.
Lugar Under Fire
While Lugar is not the most conservative senator, he has a 77% lifetime rating from the American Conservative Union. But he seemed to put a target on his back when early last year he told Tea Partyers to "get real" regarding the START arms-control treaty.
Stan Pennington, a member of the Tea Party group We The Hoosiers, is somewhat tepid in his support of Mourdock, saying that "the Tea Party needs people that are like-minded. I've met Mr. Mourdock and he seems to be one of those people. He'd be a better representative for us at this time than Mr. Lugar.
But Pennington makes it clear that Mourdock has benefited from grass-roots support. "That's the main base for his support. I've seen a lot of (Tea Party) people organizing for him.
FreedomWorks has spent $500,000, and Club for Growth $1.4 million, on his behalf.
Lugar has gotten support from outside groups like American Action Network and Young Guns Network. But in an ominous sign for Lugar, American Action Network recently cancelled $200,000 worth of air time.
Mitt Romney winning the GOP nomination is one factor generating stories of the Tea Party's demise. While Romney was clearly not the Tea Partyers' favorite, his inability to woo them dragged the campaign on into April, far longer than most other presidential primary seasons.
Polls purporting to show the Tea Party's fading popularity also have fed stories of the movement's decline. An April ABC News/Washington Post survey found 41% of Americans identify as Tea Partyers, down from a high of 47% last year. Forty-five percent oppose the Tea Party.
Yet Nathan Gonzales, deputy editor of The Rothenberg Political Report, suggests that the Tea Party's strength has never been based on its popularity but on its ability to impact elections.
"In 2010 the Tea Party was a big part of the GOP gains. And by the time we get to November the Tea Party is still going to be energized against President Obama in getting a second term," he said. "Right now, the Tea Party is a large factor in why Sen. Lugar might lose and why Sen. Hatch is still in a fight. By those indicators the Tea Party is still strong.
Down The Hatch?
Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, has spent much of the last two years currying favor with Tea Partyers in his state, hoping to avoid the fate of former Sen. Bob Bennett who was ousted in 2010 by a Tea Party challenge.
"We actually have a lot of local Tea Party people helping with our campaign," said Hatch spokeswoman Evelyn Call.
Hatch's Tea Party challenge comes from former state Sen. Dan Liljenquist, who is supported by FreedomWorks. But Tea Party Express has said it will not campaign against Hatch, calling him an "original Tea Partyer.
Hatch has a nearly 90% ACU rating. Yet he angered some Tea Partyers by helping to create the State Children's Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) and by saying in 2009 that he wanted to work on health care reform "as a legacy" for Sen. Ted Kennedy. But Hatch has also voted against a SCHIP reauthorization and ended up opposing ObamaCare.
In Utah's system, a senator must first compete in a state convention where, if he wins 60% of the delegate votes, he can avoid a primary election. Despite Hatch's efforts, he fell 32 votes short at the late April gathering.
Utahan Roger Bringhurst says it was definitely Tea Partyers who kept Hatch from winning the convention. Bringhurst, who has supported local Tea Party groups, is backing Hatch, however.
"Hatch has the experience which we need right now to handle our budget problems," he said.
Hatch will face Liljenquist in a primary on June 26. A survey conducted for Hatch's campaign showed him leading 63%-21%.
In Texas, Tea Party favorite Ted Cruz has been gaining ground vs. Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst. Dewhurst is considered the establishment candidate, with the backing of Gov. Rick Perry.
But Cruz has been endorsed by the Tea Party Express and recently ran an ad featuring the support of local Tea Party members.
That may be paying off for Cruz. An April Public Policy Polling survey showed him trailing Dewhurst 38%-26% in the GOP Senate primary. Cruz trailed by 18 points in a January PPP poll.
If no candidate gets more than 50% in the May 29 primary, the top two will face off in a run-off.