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Anti-Incumbent Winds Blowing in Advance of 2010 Elections


2010 is a congressional election year in the United States, and already there are plenty of political storm clouds on the horizon for President Barack Obama and his Democratic allies in Congress.

Recent public opinion polls tell a story of increasing voter frustration with Washington that is likely to help opposition Republicans and hurt Democrats in November.

In the latest NBC News-Wall Street Journal poll, President Obama's approval rating was at 50 percent. But nearly a-third of respondents said they almost never trust the government, reflecting voter anger and frustration that will likely be taken out on incumbent members of Congress in November, especially Democrats who hold majorities in both the Senate and House of Representatives.

Political climate

Democratic political strategist James Carville told ABC's Good Morning America that Democrats need to find a way to mobilize their supporters in a hurry if they are to match the intensity of Republican voters in November.

"And the Democrats need a strategy to re-energize their voters," he said. "This finding is very consistent and very true with other things that I have seen."

But some Republican incumbents have already run into trouble this year, thanks in large part to grassroots conservative activists operating under the banner of the so-called Tea Party movement.

Utah Senator Bob Bennett was denied in his bid for a fourth term recently when Tea Party supporters turned against him at a Republican nominating convention, largely because he supported a bank bailout in 2008 put forward by then President George W. Bush.

"The political atmosphere, obviously, has been toxic and it is very clear that some of the votes that I have cast have added to the toxic environment," he said. "Looking back on them with one or two very minor exceptions, I wouldn't have cast any of them any differently even if I had known at the time they were going to cost me my career."

Mike Lee is one of two Republicans who will take part in a primary in June in the race for Bennett's seat. He says Utah conservatives were looking for change.

"I think it is a signal that Utahans in particular and Americans in general are ready for a new generation of leaders, for men and women who believe that the federal government can't be all things to all people and that is has gotten too big and too expensive," he said.

Tea Party movement

Scot Faulkner is a veteran Republican activist who worked in the Reagan administration and for Republicans in Congress. He says the Tea Party movement has brought new energy to the party.

"I am actually working with local Tea Party people in West Virginia and it is a lot of people who may normally vote Republican but there is a fervor factor where they are far more engaged this year than in the past," he said.

The latest polls show Republicans are energized about the November elections, largely because of their opposition to President Obama and concerns about government spending and the rising government debt.

Political analyst John Fortier with the American Enterprise Institute has been looking at the issues that motivate the Tea Party activists. "They care about government. By overwhelming margins they care about the size of government and they are worried we are doing too much, too soon. They don't like Obama's policies," he said.

Fortier says the rise of the Tea Party movement will help Republicans in November to pick up seats in the House of Representatives and in the Senate.

Georgetown University expert Stephen Wayne agrees with that assessment. But Wayne, like some other analysts, also cautions that the impact of the Tea Party movement should not be over-estimated.

"From the polls that we've seen, most of the people who are active in the Tea Party movement are conservative and Republican," he said. " So what I think it does is that the Tea Party movement preaches to the converted and I think this will keep that small Republican base very active and they will come out and vote. But I don't see the Tea Party movement adding to the Republican vote. I see it just keeping that vote very active."

The party that controls the White House historically loses congressional seats in a new president's first midterm election. That number can range from a handful of seats to 20 or 30 or more, depending on the political climate.

Many analysts compare this year's election cycle with that of 1994 when Republicans made huge gains against incumbent Democrats and took control of both houses of Congress. Republicans need a 40-seat gain in the House this year to retake control of that chamber, and many analysts say they are within striking distance of that goal, although they quickly add that the political environment can still change between now and November.

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