The US electorate is more volatile than ever. Many voters are angry, somewhat confused and looking for targets at which they direct their rage.
The root of this discontent is the widespread insecurity caused by the prolonged economic crisis. Accelerating its growth has been a breakdown in public confidence in institutions basic to America's governance and financial stability (Wall Street and the banks, and both the legislative and executive branches in Washington). The resultant anger and angst has been cleverly exploited by some Republican leaders and right wing talk show hosts and well-funded groups that have organized this unrest into a protest movement. And it is having an impact in this year's elections, the bumper sticker for which may as well be "we're angry and we vote".
How else to explain the victories of such strange characters from Christine O'Donnell, who won the Republican Delaware primary for US Senate boasting of a resume that included having lied about graduating from college, being in default of her student loans, home mortgage, and taxes, and never having held a job more significant than heading a Christian sex abstinence group, to Carl Paladino who won the Republican primary for Governor of New York, despite having been found to be distributing bigoted and pornographic emails and venting about the "ruling class". These two are joined by about a dozen other similar Republican senatorial and gubernatorial candidates who will now be on the ballot in November.
What has propelled this group to victory are raw voter anger and the support of national figures like former Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin and the organized activist movement called the Tea Party.
At this point, all of this rage is on the Republican side, as, one by one, candidates favored by that party's establishment have fallen victim to this political discontent. One might say that it serves them right. Last summer, when the Tea party was first taking form and flexing its muscles, disrupting health care town halls by shouting down speakers and threatening violence, Republican leaders seemed delighted by the scenes of chaos. When the movement questioned President Obama's birth certificate, claiming that he was foreign born and therefore not entitled to be President, the GOP leaders, with a wink and a nod, gave it encouragement. When the movement turned nativist and struck out at undocumented workers, once again Republicans (who had during the Bush years supported immigration reform that would have provided the undocumented a "pathway to citizenship") encouraged voter rage. And even when the Tea Party attacked the federal government bailout of the nation's banks (an idea George W. Bush had proposed and Republicans had endorsed in late 2008), the Republican leadership feigned populis, turning against the very Wall Street and business interests they had long courted (and were still courting).
Through all of this, the GOP leadership appeared to believe that they could ride the crest of this discontent to power in November. Now after having seen their favored candidates fall victim to the very fires they stoked and on which they had poured gasoline, they are the ones who have been burned. Voter rage turned first on them and now is posed to redefine the party and go after Democrats in November.
At this point, Republican leaders are of two minds. Senator Lisa Murkowski, who was defeated by a Tea Party candidate in her primary reelection bid in Alaska has refused to endorse the victor, calling the Tea Party "an outside extremist group" that has "hijacked" the Republican Party. Meanwhile, Senator Jim DeMint, one of the most ideologically conservative Republicans (and the most visible supporter of these dissident candidates, after Palin), holds a different view. He is unfazed and even pleased by the ideological purity of the Tea Party victors, arguing that he would rather have a "pure" Republican minority than a majority that was "Republican in name only". Then there's Congressman Bob Inglis, who, though concerned by the harsh "orthodoxy" of this movement, consoles himself with the belief that once these extremist candidates win and come to Washington they can be co-opted by the leadership and "turn out to be the politicians they replaced". In an effort to begin this process of co-optation or absorption, other GOP leaders have invited the Tea Party crowd to sit with them in Washington to help shape the party's agenda for the fall.
The battle lines have been drawn for the November contest, between incumbent Democrats, who appear to be somewhat demoralized by the persistence of a sagging economy and voter unrest, and an energized and increasingly hard-line cast of Republican candidates who have emerged from the nearly completed primaries. How will voters decide?
Overall polls showed a divided and confused electorate that can go either way in November. When asked which party they wanted to see control congress, voters were split between the two parties (with Republicans having the edge in some polls). When asked whether they supported small government and fewer services or big government and more services, by a 19 point margin they favored small government. But when asked which party had the "better ideas for solving problems" facing the country, voters favored Democrats by 7 points. And Democrats beat out Republicans by 22 points as the party deemed best to help the middle class.
It is a volatile electorate and a confused political scene. Republicans have had their say and have chosen an angry and ideological crew to lead their ticket. What remains to be seen is where voters, as a whole, will be in November.