Not only did Tea Party-backed Richard Mourdock just put an end to Indiana Sen. Richard Lugar's 35-year U.S. Senate career, but it wasn't even close. NBC projected Mourdock, the Indiana state treasurer, the winner of the Republican primary shortly after polls closed, as he was trouncing Lugar by over 20 points. In and of itself, the crushing defeat of such a long-time veteran of the Senate would be a big story, but the importance of this development will be felt way beyond Indiana.
As I wrote earlier this week, a lot of pundits have been prematurely writing the obituary to the Tea Party, but Mourdock's victory demonstrates that the movement still has a lot of power. Tea Party activists will be tested again in Texas, where they hope to nominate Ted Cruz and Utah, where they hope to dump veteran Sen. Orrin Hatch in favor of conservative Dan Liljenquist.
Mourdock's victory not only means that this particular Senate seat is likely to be more conservative (assuming he goes on to win the general election in this traditionally red state), but it also puts Republican Senators everywhere on notice that no seat is safe anywhere in the country. Any elected Republican that doesn't pursue a small government agenda once in office risks suffering the same fate as Lugar. Had Lugar hung on, then a lot of people would have dismissed the Tea Party as a passing fad from 2010. But now it's clear that the movement has been underestimated once again. Tea Partiers have a lot more staying power than skeptics expected.
With the Republican presidential nomination going to the ideologically malleable Mitt Romney, supporters of limited government have recognized that their best hope for advancing the conservative agenda rests on the ability to elect as many principled conservatives to Congress as possible. That is, lawmakers who will be willing to fight for smaller government even if it means standing up to a president of their own party. The more victories the Tea Party racks up, the greater the chance that Romney will be forced to govern as a limited government conservative if elected, even if his natural inclination is to migrate to the left.