2010 is a congressional election year in the United States, and political experts are keeping close watch on a grassroots conservative movement known as the Tea Party. Tea Party supporters favor a limited role for the central government and are fierce critics of President Barack Obama and Democrats in Congress. A growing number of congressional Republicans are embracing the Tea Party.
Think of the Tea Party as a political movement, not a formal political party. Tea Party supporters want to reduce taxes and government spending and in general want to limit the role of the federal government.
The Tea Party movement gained momentum during last year's debate over President Obama's health care reform plan, a debate that played out in numerous rallies and angry town hall meetings across the country.
Opposition Republicans believe that harnessing the energy and grassroots organizing success of the Tea Party movement will carry them to victory in this year's midterm congressional elections.
With that in mind, about 30 Republicans in the House of Representatives came together recently to form the House Tea Party Caucus, a group that will push the Tea Party agenda of limited government in the halls of Congress.
Congresswoman Michele Bachmann of Minnesota is leading the effort.
"They represent mainstream American people who have decided to get up off the couch because they want to take their country back," said Michele Bachmann. "They believe that we are taxed enough already, that the federal government should not spend more money than it takes in, and that Congress should act within the constitutional limitations as given to us by the Founding Fathers."
A recent poll by Democratic political strategists Stan Greenberg and James Carville found that Tea Party supporters are energized about this year's congressional elections and eager to help Republicans reclaim control of one or both houses of Congress.
Greenberg says the survey found a high number of Tea Party supporters among those who consider themselves likely voters in this year's elections.
"They will have an impact in this election," said Stan Greenberg. "They are 25 percent of the electorate [among likely voters], you know, self-identify as strong Tea Party supporters. That is a big number. Ninety-two percent disapprove of Obama's performance, 89 percent strongly."
Greenberg says the Tea Party movement at its core is a grassroots network of conservative activists usually inclined to vote Republican.
"It is not independent, it is not populist, it is not a populist revolt against the elites, it is not a working class revolt rooted in frustration with the recession, Wall Street and government," he said. "This is a grassroots movement within the Republican Party that is having a great impact on the party and beyond."
Republicans see the energy of the Tea Party movement as a key to victory this year. But Greenberg says the Tea Party has plenty of critics as well, including a few moderate Republicans, who see the movement as too extreme and hostile to minorities and immigrants.
"Once you get beyond the Tea Party supporters themselves, it is not that popular," said Greenberg. "There is a majority who view them as extreme. And when you get beyond the Tea Party supporters themselves, there is an even split on whether their motivation is a racial animosity to President Obama."
One of the country's leading civil rights organizations, the NAACP, recently called on Tea Party leaders to repudiate racist elements within their own ranks. The National Tea Party Federation did expel the leader of one group over what it regarded as a racist blog post.
And Tea Party organizers are also highlighting the participation of minority members like Danielle Hollars, an African-American Army veteran from Virginia.
"I am here because I want to tell America that we are not terrorists, we are not racist," said Danielle Hollars. "We are Americans who care about our country and the future for our children and our grandchildren."
Congresswoman Michele Bachmann is a favorite among Tea Party supporters, second only in popularity to former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, the Republican Party's vice presidential nominee in 2008.
Palin was the featured speaker at the first Tea Party convention earlier this year and some political experts believe Palin could use her base of support within the Tea Party movement to launch a campaign for president in 2012.