Alexander Smith: Tea but no sympathy as Obama faces polls

WITH crucial mid-term elections taking place across America tomorrow, President Barack Obama faces his biggest electoral challenge since his inauguration in January 2009.

For many, his victory heralded a new era of optimism after eight

years of the socially conservative George W Bush. Many hoped that Obama would bring a fresh approach to major foreign engagements in Afghanistan and Iraq, to which the UK has also committed significant military resources, and resolving the global financial crisis that has had such a profound impact on our country.

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But the Democrats, who have majorities in both the House of Representatives and the Senate, risk losing seats to energetic Republican Party candidates backed by the insurgent Tea Party movement. Whether they lose enough seats to enable Republicans to take control of Congress will be one of the most pressing questions on the

President's mind.

A Right-wing populist, ultra-conservative movement opposed to Federal bailouts of America's banks and Obama's health care reforms, the Tea Party held rallies across the country just weeks after Obama's inauguration in January 2009. The movement quickly found enthusiastic champions among Fox News presenters and the Right-wing

media. And it quickly attracted support from high-profile Republicans such as former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, who had been John McCain's running mate for vice-president in 2008.

By this summer, it seemed that the domestic political tide was well and truly moving in the Tea Party's favour. But Democrats soon discovered they were not the only politicians with a reason to fear this Right-wing movement. Setting the political agenda during the Republican Party's primary season, the Tea Party brought a wider unpredictability to this year's election cycle. Candidates endorsed by the movement successfully challenged a number of high-profile

Republicans associated with the party's moderate wing.

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One scalp claimed by the Tea Party was Congressman Mike Castle from Delaware. Having previously served as President of the centrist Republican Main Street Partnership, Castle is a progressive Republican who had been seeking his party's nomination to fill a Senate vacancy that was created when Senator Joe Biden resigned to take up the vice-presidency under Barack Obama. But it was the Tea Party favourite, Christine O'Donnell, endorsed by Sarah Palin, who defeated him in the primary on a low turnout of Republican voters.

The Republican Party establishment has now virtually written off its chances of winning the Senate vacancy, viewing her and her supporters as too ideologically extreme for a moderate mid-Atlantic state like Delaware. So while the Republicans will almost certainly make significant gains, it is more difficult to speculate about the likely impact the Tea Party will have on the polls. It is also very likely that, looking back on the Delaware primary in a few months' time, defeating a Republican moderate like Mike Castle will be viewed as an electoral high water mark for the Tea Party movement.

However, throughout the last two years, the Tea Party has successfully provided cover to those Right-wing Republicans who potentially constitute a much more potent threat to Obama's chances of winning a second term in the White House in 2012. After all, the US is still very much a conservative country and Obama's victory was made possible through an alliance of liberal and moderate constituencies across America. This alliance remains fragile.

The deeply conservative senator Sam Brownback, a national leader of the Christian Right, is seeking to become Governor of Kansas this year. Known to harbour Presidential ambitions, Brownback is just the sort of national Republican figure that Democrats might have otherwise focused – even in a Republican stronghold like Kansas – on trying to defeat. But with the Tea Party drawing national media attention, liberal America's "auld enemy" Sam Brownback has been assiduously working the grassroots in the conservative white heartland of America. This will potentially lay the groundwork for him to mount a direct challenge for the Presidency in 2012.

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Astute pundits in the British media would do well to pay particular attention to leaders like Brownback. Relatively unknown in the UK, he is a self-proclaimed "compassionate conservative" who nonetheless opposes abortion rights, embryonic stem cell research and the teaching of evolution in Kansas schools.

Brownback's election this year will embolden those reactionary conservative voices who want to see America return to the ideological battlegrounds of the Bush years. This has the potential to be more destabilising for the Obama administration than the Tea Party. For UK policy-makers looking to the US for pragmatic ideas and reasoned leadership, the political stakes in the mid-term elections could not be higher.

Dr Alexander Smith is a lecturer in sociology at the University of Huddersfield as well as Adjunct Assistant Professor in the Department of Sociology at the University of Kansas.

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