2010 mid-term elections
It's Tea Party time
Tea Party activism is helping to reshape the US political landscape and influencing the national political discourse ahead of next Tuesday's legislative elections
By Tracy Quek
DELAWARE: At 57, Mrs Jill Bianchi is a latecomer to political activism. But the bank administrative assistant has spent the past 18 months making up for lost time.
She has made five trips from Delaware to the United States capital to join protests against runaway federal government spending in the form of bank bailouts, the economic stimulus package and health-care reform.
She has attended workshops on organising grassroots support, learnt to use social networking tools to recruit new members as well as beefed up her knowledge of the US legislative process.
Mrs Bianchi is a proud member of the conservative Tea Party movement - an independent grassroots network of activists motivated by their staunch belief in fiscal responsibility, and bound by a common distrust of government, economic anxiety and patriotism.
The earliest Tea Party groups held their first demonstrations in February last year, following the passage of the economic stimulus Bill. Today, the movement is dominating the national political discourse and reshaping the country's political landscape.
Dozens of Tea Party-backed political candidates have performed better than expected in mid-term election primaries over the past year. Some are now neck and neck with prominent lawmakers in opinion polls ahead of next Tuesday's legislative elections.
A year ago, few would have predicted a movement made up mostly of political novices like Mrs Bianchi could have shaken up the status quo as much as it has.
The Tea Party movement has proven to be a formidable force within the Republican Party. It has reinvigorated conservative voters, positioning the party to win back majority control of the House of Representatives, and perhaps the Senate, from the Democrats.
Along the way, the movement has forced mainstream Republicans to shift their political positions more to the right.
But the question has always been whether the Tea Party is simply a vocal minority, or whether it wields true influence over the wider, politically diverse electorate. The outcome of next Tuesday's elections will provide the first important measure of the extent of its appeal.
'Much will depend on how Tea Party candidates perform, especially in key Senate races in Alaska, Colorado, Kentucky and Nevada,' said Mr William Galston, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.
The 'big story of the evening', he told an online forum, will be if Tea Party firebrand Sharron Angle beats Senate majority leader Harry Reid, a top Democrat and one of the most powerful politicians in Washington, for Nevada's Senate seat.
If Tea Party candidates can attract enough independent and even Democratic voters to win, there is a good chance the movement will have a longer shelf life than other populist uprisings in the past, say experts.
It could hold more sway over the Republican Party, turn up the heat on the Democrats, and possibly up-end President Barack Obama's legislative agenda. The movement could also potentially play a key role in influencing the crop of candidates running for the 2012 presidential elections.
But ironically, the Tea Party's biggest challenge could be its own success.
The movement has no official, coherent platform on which to govern or make policy, just an array of positions based on a desire for less intrusive government. But broad principles will not suffice when the time comes to debate legislation and create jobs.
Then, there is also the uneasy kinship between the Tea Party movement and Republican Party. Tea Partiers say they do not have a centralised leadership and are not affiliated to any political party. But members tend to be Republicans and conservatives whose fiscal and social views are on the far right of the political spectrum.
In the campaign's final days, it appears that Republican leaders who worried from the outset about Tea Party candidates causing more harm than good have reason to fret. Tea Party candidates in close races in Kentucky, Alaska and Delaware have stumbled in recent days and could cost the Republican Party Senate seats it otherwise might have won.
Even if successful, the arrival in Congress of a crop of Tea Party newcomers resistant to the authority of established political parties could complicate things for top Republicans who have begun drawing up an agenda for next year.
The list includes a push for more than US$100 billion (S$130 billion) in spending cuts, tax reductions, and plans to undo key parts of President Barack Obama's health-care and financial regulation laws.
The extreme ideology and inflexible approach of Tea Party candidates - some want to abolish the Federal Reserve, the Internal Revenue Service and other government agencies - may prove incompatible with legislative practicalities.
Experts are predicting legislative gridlock. Tea Partiers say they welcome it.
'Gridlock will force these guys at the top to slow down and stop the spending,' said Mr Jeff Tucek, 54, a retired automotive industry executive based in Illinois.
Even if lawmakers overcome all the speed bumps, there is still the spectre of infighting among the loose coalition of hundreds of local Tea Party groups.
Interviews with Tea Party activists in Delaware, Illinois and California reveal tension between ideological purity and electoral success.
Chicago Tea Party coordinator Steve Stevlic reckons he would rather not vote than support a 'Rino' (Republican in Name Only) this election: 'I'd rather have a true conservative minority than have a Rino majority in Congress.'
Retiree Scot Douglas in California disagrees. He is backing the state's Republican candidates for governor and the Senate, even though he feels former CEOs Meg Whitman and Carly Fiorina are not true-blue conservatives.
'Just as in life, you've got to make the best with what you have because the alternative is worse,' the 61-year-old told The Straits Times.
How these divergent views will affect the dynamics of the movement in future is open to question at the moment.
But activists agree on one thing - from Nov 2, they will be watching all the candidates they helped send to Congress.
'They're under probation. If they don't vote on legislation the way we want or (the way they) promised to, they'll suffer a bad fate in the next elections,' said Mr Stevlic.
But for now, the movement emerges a winner, said Professor Julian Zelizer, a history and politics expert at Princeton University. 'The movement has energised the Republican Party in a way that seemed impossible just a few years ago.'
Indeed, in the sprint to Nov 2, Tea Party activists in states facing close contests are fired-up and hungry for victory.
Mrs Bianchi said: 'We were asleep before and we let people in Washington run our country into a bad state. But we're wide awake now.'