For those who think Sen. Richard Lugar’s defeat was primarily attributable to running a weak campaign or for living outside of Indiana for decades, I’ve got one number in dissent: 38 percent. That’s the shockingly low percentage of the vote the six-term senator won this month, with a margin of defeat larger than any other senator in a primary over the past three decades. That’s a 2006 Rick Santorum-like loss, for a politician who had been accustomed to coasting to landslide victories. It suggests that even if Lugar had run a top-notch campaign, he would have been susceptible to forces outside of his control: a Republican electorate looking for new faces and more-outspoken conservative leadership.

Lugar’s landslide loss is a sign of the maturation of the tea party, a loosely defined confederation of conservative activists in 2010 who have banded together and threaten to have a defining impact in 2012. Because they’re not conducting mass protests, Occupy Wall Street-style, many pundits naïvely presumed their strength had subsided. But in reality, the masses of disaffected conservatives are a sleeping giant…

Take a close look at the scoreboard: A well-respected senator suffering a historic primary loss, a once-popular former four-term governor being rebuked by party activists, a Republican establishment favorite losing despite a significant organizational advantage, and another one at serious risk of being defeated. If the tea party hasn’t already won, I don’t know what victory looks like.