There have been no crowded rallies on the National Mall this year, but the Tea Party hasn't faded away. And by Tuesday night it will likely have Richard Mourdock to prove the conservative movement is still a force to be reckoned with.
Mourdock is widely favored to beat Sen. Richard Lugar in Indiana's Republican primary Tuesday after leading the longtime incumbent by as much as 10 percentage points.
"I know that there are a lot of people looking to see if the Tea Party is alive or is it dead, but [Tuesday's primary] will demonstrate that reports of our death are greatly exaggerated," said Mourdock, the state treasurer backed by Indiana's Tea Party and FreedomWorks, arguably the nation's largest Tea Party-affiliated organization.
Political strategists say that if Lugar loses his bid for a seventh term it will be because of a poor campaign that failed to take seriously a Tea Party challenge from the political right.
But Tea Party activists said they deserve credit, too, for helping to bring down Lugar, who demonstrated a willingness to work with Democrats and in support of legislation the Tea Party abhors, including the 2009 Wall Street bailout.
Mourdock's success, activists said, would show that the Tea Party evolved over the past three years from a high-profile if largely disorganized group of fiscal conservatives into a movement that can rally the grassroots support needed to take down a well-financed candidate like Lugar.
"It's fewer rallies, more things like bootcamp training," said Brendan Steinhauser, director of federal and state campaigns for FreedomWorks. "All last year, what we really focused on was training, learning how to campaign, how to go door to door, how to do phone banking and yard signs. That more than anything else will explain the success we have had this year."
Margaret Ferguson, of Indiana University-Purdue University in Indianapolis, said the Tea Party "still has a presence, but it has taken a different turn," citing $700,000 FreedomWorks spent to help the underfunded Mourdock.
Yet, while the Tea Party helped remake the landscape of the 2010 congressional elections, it appears to be strong enough now only to take out the weakest incumbents, at least at the Senate level. That was evident in April in Utah, when Sen. Orrin Hatch beat back a Tea Party challenge at the state's Republican convention.
Hatch, who arrived in the Senate with Lugar in 1976, still faces a primary, but he has already advanced further than his former Senate colleague from Utah, Bob Bennett, who was defeated by the Tea Party in 2010.
"Hatch has just done a better job than Lugar in the past two years trying to make the argument that he is a conservative," Steinhauser said. "That has had a big impact."
Evidence of the Tea Party's limited strength is also apparent in Virginia, where former Sen. George Allen is expected to easily defeat a Tea Party favorite in the Republican Senate primary, and in Florida, where the Tea Party helped elect Sen. Marco Rubio two years ago but couldn't field a challenger of its own this year against Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson.
FreedomWorks, meanwhile, is focused instead on boosting Tea Party candidates running for open Senate seats in Texas, Arizona and Nebraska.