Huelskamp's victory, of course, was Pyrrhic. With Boehner marginalized, Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, of Nevada, have been left to sort out a fiscal cliff deal — one that almost certainly will be worse for Republicans than what Boehner proposed.
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It wasn't just in legislative battles where the tea party proved a point but lost the fight in 2012.
Indiana's Senate race showed the promise and peril of the movement. Sen. Dick Lugar, who was first elected in 1976 and had been easily re-elected since then, faced a primary challenge from his ideological right from state Treasurer Richard Mourdock, a little-known but decidedly more tea-party-friendly candidate.
Lugar's problems weren't solely ideological — he didn't live in the state, rarely visited it and ignored advice from national party strategists to take Mourdock's challenge seriously. But the sense that he tended toward moderation and, gasp, occasionally supported Obama on matters of foreign policy, didn't sit well with the GOP primary electorate.
Mourdock summed up his view of government succinctly the day after he beat Lugar. "I don't think there's going to be a lot of successful compromise," he said on CNN. "I hope to build a conservative majority in the U.S. Senate so bipartisanship becomes Democrats joining Republicans to roll back the size of government."
He never got a chance to see that vision realized, because of a bit of political hara-kiri he committed in a late-October debate with Democratic Rep. Joe Donnelly. Asked about abortion, Mourdock paused, then said that "even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that is something that God intended to happen."
Days later, Mitt Romney carried the Hoosier State by 10 points, but Mourdock lost to Donnelly by six points — a defeat that establishment Republicans immediately used to argue that the tea party's political compass was either badly miscalibrated or nonexistent.