In January 2011, Tea Party Express co-founder Sal Russo had dinner with a then-little known candidate who was preparing to become the tea party’s Republican alternative in the Indiana U.S. Senate race.
Richard Mourdock, Indiana’s State Treasurer, was that candidate. His task was tall: His opponent would be six-term U.S. Sen. Dick Lugar, a force in Indiana politics for more than 40 years. Unseating an incumbent is hard. Unseating a six-term incumbent is even more of a daunting mission. But at that dinner, Russo knew he had a candidate he could endorse when he asked Mourdock what his approach would be to unseating Lugar.
“Sen. Lugar’s been an outstanding public servant,” Russo recalls Mourdock saying. “I’m not going to berate him. I’ll respect the job that he’s done. But it’s time for a change. It’s time for him to take his gold watch and retire.”
Of that moment, Russo said: “I knew, having that kind of an attitude, that he was our guy.”
A year and a half later, Mourdock improbably unseated Lugar in Tuesday’s Republican primary. He is the tea party darling, the candidate who is pledging to shake things up, to rid that Indiana Senate seat of Washington insider politics. At the same time, he is not Christine O’Donnell. He is not Sharron Angle. He has a very valid shot at a Senate seat.
He also signifies the tea party’s arrival to the 2012 campaign. With it comes a side that supporters love — campaigns with energy, new blood and commitment to defy the Republican establishment in Congress.
With it also comes charges from the other side, even among Republicans. Like, for instance, Lugar’s scathing statement he released after conceding defeat:
If Mr. Mourdock is elected, I want him to be a good Senator. But that will require him to revise his stated goal of bringing more partisanship to Washington. He and I share many positions, but his embrace of an unrelenting partisan mindset is irreconcilable with my philosophy of governance and my experience of what brings results for Hoosiers in the Senate. […]
This is not conducive to problem solving and governance. And he will find that unless he modifies his approach, he will achieve little as a legislator. Worse, he will help delay solutions that are totally beyond the capacity of partisan majorities to achieve.
Either way, Mourdock is the first shining example of the tea party’s shift from mainstream obscurity to prominence once again in Indiana. This, Russo said, was a result of the tea party moving away from political protests and more into an active role with political campaigns.
“He ran a very strong campaign,” Russo said. “It was very grassroots-oriented. We got in really early with all the tea party groups in Indiana, and they provided a lot of the manpower for a successful campaign.
“The people in the tea party movement are still there.”
Watch our 80 second video of how Mourdock did it below.
NOW WATCH: Briefing videos
Business Insider Emails & Alerts
Site highlights each day to your inbox.