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Will Mourdock become tea party's latest flop?

Movement must support good candidates who know when to shut up

Tuesday, November 6, 2012 - 7:15 am

Even if it ultimately succeeds, one of Richard Mourdock's latest TV ads qualifies as one of the most ironic – and hence instructive – in recent political history.

In a not-so-subtle reference to Republican's recent comment about rape, abortion and God's will, the woman makes it clear she doesn't agree with everything Mourdock says but that she'll vote for him anyway because what really counts is the need to regain control of the U.S. Senate.

It's a powerful message, all right, but one that probably would have been unnecessary had Mourdock not defeated longtime Sen. Richard Lugar in the Republican primary. Now, having prevailed in May by running to the right of the incumbent, Murdock's poll numbers indicate he may help deliver precisely what his ad finds repugnant:

A Democratic Senate still led by Obama's right-hand man, Harry Reid.

And if that happens – even if it doesn't – tea party members should ask themselves whether their grass-roots movement risks becoming an impediment to the conservative cause.

This is not the first time a tea party-backed candidate has been in danger of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, as Reid himself proves. Unpopular with Nevada voters two years ago, he nevertheless was re-elected after tea party favorite Sharron Angle, who had defeated a more “moderate” Republican in the primary, told Hispanic high school students that they looked Asian and saying the 9/11 terrorists entered through the Canadian border.

Also in 2010, tea party favorite Ken Buck defeated establishment Republican Joe Norton in the primary before losing by 2 points to appointed Democratic Sen. Michael Bennett. And in the biggest tea-party Senate flop of all, Christine “I am not a witch” O'Donnell lost by 17 points to Democrat Chris Coons, whom polls suggested would have lost to the man O'Donnell defeated in the GOP primary, long time Rep. Mike Castle.

Just this year, Missouri's Republican Senate candidate, Todd Akin, responded to a question about rape and abortion by saying, “If it's a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to shut that whole thing down.” Polls had shown Akin leading incumbent Democrat Claire McCaskill, but national Republican groups pulled their support in the wake of Akin's comment.

It is pure conjecture, of course, whether Buck, Angle or O'Donnell would have won if not for their gaffes or their depiction as “extremists” by opponents. Whether Akin or Mourdock survive their misinformed, misconstrued or mischaracterized statements about rape and abortion remains to be seen.

But with Democrats currently holding 53 of the 100 seats in the Senate, this much is certain: If they want to enact legislation they claim is essential to the country's very survival, Republicans cannot afford to lose even one seat they should win. The party may have already squandered more than that, with still more possibly only a day away.

The tea party's goals are “extreme” only to those who oppose smaller, constitutional government. But with so many shameless politicians willing to use that word gratuitously, and with most of the media unwilling to challenge them, conservatives must be doubly careful when describing themselves and their beliefs or explaining their positions.

Mourdock, for example, explicitly did not say rape is “God's will,” but that hasn't prevented opponents from claiming he did. The position that even life created by rape deserves legal protection is legitimate and defensible but is controversial in any case. Bringing God into the argument unnecessarily invited ridicule by opponents and the media, as Mourdock should have anticipated.

And now, at least in part because he didn't, his campaign is asking for votes on the basis of a stop-the-liberals argument that probably would have been unnecessary for the long-time incumbent Mourdock criticized as too moderate during the primary.

I have many libertarian leanings but seldom vote for Libertarian Party candidates. Some are goofy. Others are credible people but could, in a close race, cost the more conservative major-party candidate the victory.

If the tea party wants to be taken seriously and effect real change, it must weed out candidates not ready for prime time (Angle, O'Donnell), and support qualified candidates (as Mourdock clearly is) who not only have the right views but know how to express them in honest, forceful, clear but winsome ways.

It took liberals decades to achieve what the tea party rightly hopes to undo. Punishing moderate Republicans in the quest for instant ideological purity only goes so far when victory in May produces defeat in November.

At least Mourdock never said he "dabbled in witchcraft."

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Kevin Leininger at kleininger@news-sentinel.com, or call him at 461-8355.