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Volatile Political Climate Backdrop For US Elections

2010 has already proven to be a volatile political year in the United States.  Three sitting U.S. senators have been defeated in primary elections so far, and there are predictions of more upheaval to come when voters go the polls in congressional midterm elections in November.  

The latest political upset occurred in Alaska.  Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski was defeated by political newcomer Joe Miller in a primary election.  Miller had help from conservative Tea Party activists and from former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin.

Palin was the Republican vice presidential nominee in 2008 and has emerged as a major political player this year as dozens of conservative candidates seek her endorsement.

Palin was also a featured speaker at a recent conservative rally in Washington organized by commentator Glenn Beck, and some Republicans are urging her to run for president in 2012. "We must not fundamentally transform America, as some would want, we must restore America and restore her honor," she said.

Earlier this year, Tea Party supporters helped to defeat veteran Senator Bob Bennett in the Republican nominating convention in Utah.  They have also played an important role in a number of congressional primaries around the country, forcing Republican office-holders to take note of the power of the energized and well-organized conservative activists.

Gerard Alexander is a political scientist at the University of Virginia and a recent guest on VOA's Encounter program. "The majority of Republican incumbents who have been challenged or overthrown in their own primaries has tended to be people who had committed sins, so to speak, by being too far to the center or the left rather than too far to the right," he said.

Alexander says Tea Party activists are having an impact on U.S. politics this year, even though experts do not classify the movement as a formal political party. "I don't even like using the term 'Tea Party' because it implies a very specifically organized group and force, and that is not really what that social movement appears to be.  It is more comparable, it seems to me, to phrases we have used from the past like the Feminist movement or the Civil Rights movement or other groups that are made up of tens or hundreds of thousands of individuals, many of whom are not centrally coordinated," he said.

Anger over the power of the federal government, congressional spending and the growing national debt are driving forces behind the Tea Party movement.  Tea Party supporters strongly oppose President Obama's economic stimulus plan and the health care reform law passed by Democrats in Congress, and those views have been on display in numerous Republican primary elections around the country.

Kevin Whitelaw is an editor with Congressional Quarterly Magazine and a guest on VOA's Issues in the News program. "It shows the depth of this anti-government message that the Tea Party has, and it also does show this reserve of anger about what the Obama administration and the Democrats have done," he said.

Republicans expect to benefit from the energy of conservative activists in the November midterm congressional elections.  A growing number of analysts now predict Republicans are within striking distance of winning back control of the House of Representatives, and have at least an outside chance of taking back the Senate.

The latest unemployment numbers released Friday did little to boost the hopes of Democrats.  The U.S. jobless rate rose slightly in August, even though private employers reported a modest increase in new jobs.

As he has before, President Obama urged Americans to have patience as they hope for an economic rebound. "There is no quick fix to the worst recession we have experienced since the Great Depression.  The hard truth is that it took years to create our current economic problems and it will take more time than any of us would like to repair the damage," he said.

The economic uncertainty has created a difficult political mood in the country for Democrats, says veteran political observer Tom DeFrank of the New York Daily News. "The American people are jittery about their lives, their futures, the future of their employment, their kid's jobs.  Nobody believes that the economy is coming back (right now).  It will come back but nowhere in time to help the Democrats in the November elections, that is for sure," he said.

In addition to Senators Murkowski and Bennett, Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, a Democrat, was also defeated in a primary earlier this year.  

The midterm elections will be held on November 2.  All 435 seats in the House of Representatives are at stake, along with 37 of the 100 U.S. Senate seats and 37 state governorships.

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