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How Illinois Republicans Created the Tea Party

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How Illinois Republicans Created the Tea Party

Katy Wolpoff

Tea Party activists dress up for a Tax Day protest on Daley Plaza in Chicago.

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Indiana’s six-term senator, Richard Lugar, is going to lose his seat to state Treasurer Richard Mourdock, a Tea Partier who has run ads criticizing Lugar for working with Obama on nuclear disarmament.

Because a Republican who cooperates with Obama is an enemy collaborator, even if he collaborates to keep us safe from our enemies. 

At first, I thought Mourdock’s success was just another symptom of right-wing Hoosier insanity. But then I remembered that we had two similar Republican Senate primaries in the 1990s -- one of which contributed to the rise of Barack Obama, and, ultimately, the creation of the Tea Party. 

The first was in 1996, when state Rep. Al Salvi, a lawyer from Lake County, defeated Lt. Gov. Bob Kustra for the nomination to succeed Paul Simon. Salvi sold himself to Republican voters as the true conservative alternative to the collaborationist moderates who controlled the party’s establishment. Democrats were thrilled with their opponent. In Springfield, Democratic legislators taunted Republicans by chanting “Salvi! Salvi!” on the Capitol floor. Salvi was an immature, intemperate candidate. In the last days of the election, he accused gun control advocate Jim Brady of having been a machine gun dealer. It turned out he had the wrong Jim Brady.

Dick Durbin defeated Salvi 61 percent to 39 percent. Kustra quit the lieutenant governorship to become a university president. Salvi lost one more race, for Secretary of State, then went back to work as a lawyer. 

The more significant primary was in 1998. That’s when state Sen. Peter Fitzgerald, a banking heir from Inverness, sold himself to Republican voters as the pro-life alternative to collaborationist moderate Loleta Didrickson, the state comptroller, who was pro-choice and all that. Fitzgerald won the general election, but only because he got to run against Sen. Carol Moseley Braun, who could not have beaten a dog-bite lawyer after the scandalous ineptitude of her term in Washington. 

Despite his lucky break, Fitzgerald was not enough of a politician to hold on to the seat. Unable to get along with the Republican establishment he had beaten, he did not run for re-election in 2004, and was succeeded by … Barack Obama. 

Would Obama have been able to defeat incumbent Sen. Loleta Didrickson in 2004? We can safely say she would have been a tougher opponent than Alan Keyes. If Didrickson had been an effective senator, she would have been the favorite. John Kerry carried the state that year, but Illinois are ticket-splitters. In 2010, we elected Pat Quinn and Mark Kirk.

Obama might not even have run for the Senate against Didrickson. Had he lost, he would now be a has-been politician, practicing law or running a foundation. And we might not have a Tea Party.

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