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Tea Party Rises Ahead of November Elections

In U.S. politics, the conservative and libertarian wave known as the Tea Party movement claimed another significant victory on Tuesday in a Republican Senate primary in the small eastern state of Delaware. It is the latest example of how Tea Party activists have had success this year in defeating established Republican candidates. The question is how will Tea Party-endorsed candidates do against Democrats in the November midterm congressional elections?

Add Delaware to a growing list of Senate primaries where Tea Party activists took on more established Republican candidates and won.

"Don't ever underestimate the power of 'We, the People'!" said Christine O'Donnell was given little chance of defeating experienced Republican Mike Castle in the Republican Party's primary for Senate. But thanks to support from Tea Party activists and an endorsement from former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, O'Donnell was able to tap into voter anger that is having a huge impact on the Republican Party this election year.

She spoke to NBC television's Today program.

"This past year, we have seen an uprising of everyday Americans who are fighting to take back their country," O'Donnell said. "And I have been fortunate enough to earn their support, and they had their voice heard last night."

Republicans had long expected Mike Castle to prevail in the primary and go on to win the Senate seat in November, which would have been a major boost to their hopes of retaking control of the Senate.

But many experts say that Democrats have a good chance of holding on to the Delaware seat, predicting that O'Donnell is too conservative to draw support from Democratic and independent voters.

In addition to Delaware, Tea Party supporters have scored primary victories this year in Colorado, Connecticut, Kentucky, Nevada and Utah.

The Tea Party is not a political party, but a grassroots conservative and libertarian movement focused on cutting taxes and government spending. The name of the movement refers to a colonial American tax protest in 1773 known as the Boston Tea Party.

Republicans hope that the anger and energy of Tea Party activists will help carry them to victory in the November midterm congressional elections.

Ohio Representative John Boehner would become Speaker of the House of Representatives, if Republicans can gain the 39 seats they need to win a majority in the House.

"I have never seen more Americans engaged in their government in my lifetime," Boehner said. "The voters of Delaware have spoken and you are going to continue to hear the American speak - not just last night, but you are going to hear them speak loud and clearly come November."

But Democrats saw good news in the Delaware results, including White House Spokesman Robert Gibbs.

"Look, I think last night showed that there is a very vociferous debate going on inside the Republican Party for the hearts and minds of Republican voters," Gibbs said.

Gibbs noted that some prominent Republicans have already raised doubts about Christine O'Donnell's ability to win the Senate race in a Democrat-leaning state like Delaware.

Democratic Party Chairman Tim Kaine told NBC television's Today program that his party will benefit in November because Tea Party activists are pushing the Republican Party too far to the right.

"The other thing I think it shows is the deep civil war that is going on in the Republican Party," Kaine said. "I think the message is that moderates are not welcome; moderates keep out."

Tea Party supporters have claimed several victories in Republican primaries this year. But the real test comes on November 2, when their candidates face off against Democrats in the general election.

Quinnipiac University pollster Peter Brown says his surveys have found that about one in eight U.S. voters support the Tea Party movement.

"The Tea Party folks clearly have been able to turn voters out in Republican primaries," Brown said. "And whether these are people who didn't ordinarily vote in the past and haven't voted in November in the past and may turn out in November is 'the 64 million dollar question.' [the major question] We don't know for sure."

Costas Panagopolous is a political expert at Fordham University in New York and the executive editor of Campaigns & Elections magazine. He says the anger and frustration that Tea Party supporters display are genuine.

"Well, I think voters are expressing a great deal of frustration with the status quo and the political system as it stands," Panagopolous said. "And I think there is enough anger, it seems at this point, and frustration to be fueling interest in the Tea Party movement across the country."

But Panagopolous also says some Tea Party activists seem driven by a desire to bring ideological purity to the Republican Party.

"They are willing to put up candidates that are more ideologically extreme in a general election and risk losing to a Democrat, rather than having a Republican win who is not going to support their views," Panagopolous said.

Panagopolous says Democrats are welcoming the Delaware results as good news because they believe their candidate, Chris Coons, has a much better chance of defeating Christine O'Donnell than he did Mike Castle.

Political analysts say the true impact of the Tea Party will not be known until the November 2 elections, when all 435 House seats and 37 of the 100 seats in the Senate will be decided by U.S. voters.

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    Jim Malone

    Jim Malone has served as VOA’s National correspondent covering U.S. elections and politics since 1995. Prior to that he was a VOA congressional correspondent and served as VOA’s East Africa Correspondent from 1986 to 1990. Jim began his VOA career with the English to Africa Service in 1983.