Witches and tea baggers: The weirdest US election

A Republican win is likely as extremists storm into Congress
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There is disappointing news for Democrats across the US this weekend. Christine O'Donnell, the Republican trying to win a Senate seat in Delaware, has seen the peril that awaits her on Halloween, just two days before the mid-term elections on 2 November. She will not be wearing a witch costume.

You may recall those clips revealing Ms O'Donnell's youthful flirtation with bats and broomsticks. But that a candidate for the most exclusive political club in the nation should be reduced repeatedly to addressing matters wiccan – she has television ads out saying she isn't a witch – tells us something not just about the Delaware race but about this election season generally: there are a lot of weird goings-on.

How quickly the euphoria of 2008 and Barack Obama's triumph evaporated. All that talk of a new Washington overcoming its nasty partisan habits, even Guantanamo closing down – it hasn't happened. Though it is partly because Mr Obama is in the Oval Office that the land is in such ferment. He has proved more polarising than anyone might reasonably have expected. And the economic malaise just won't lift.

It was Mr Obama's early actions, particularly the $787bn (£502bn) stimulus programme and the car manufacturers' bailouts, that sparked the most distinguishing feature of this mid-term cycle, when Americans must pick all the House of Representatives, a third of the Senate and a large number of state governorships: the bursting forth of the throw-the-bums-out Tea Party.

That the Democrats, the current majority holders in both chambers of Congress, have had everything to fear from these elections has been clear for months. Consider: when President Bill Clinton saw his majority wiped out by Newt Gingrich's Republicans in 1994, at the halfway mark of his first term, the national unemployment rate stood at 5.6 per cent. The jobless level in Mr Obama's United States is 9.6 per cent.

The polls this weekend continue to tell a grim story for the President and his flock. The last AP-GfK survey before voting day shows the Republicans set handily to replace the Democrats as the majority party in the House of Representatives and possibly to retake the Senate as well. While both parties remain unpopular, the Republicans outpaced the Democrats on almost every issue, from the economy to immigration. More than half those surveyed disapproved of the job Mr Obama is doing.

If winning the House would give Republicans muscle to impede Mr Obama in the last two years of his term, taking the Senate would be of far greater import because it would allow them to craft laws that Mr Obama would have to approve or veto, which is politically risky. First up could be bills to unpick the healthcare reform laws that the President spent so much political capital pushing through.

The Tea Party's greatest role may be as an energising force. If there is a lot of talk of the "enthusiasm gap" between the relatively morose Democrats and the raging Republicans, it is courtesy in part of the Tea Party people. They are stirring the anger. "Fire Pelosi" is the badge at rallies for the Senate candidate Marco Rubio in Florida these days. Nancy Pelosi, the House Speaker, will sail to re-election in her San Francisco seat but she is an even greater lightning rod for conservative disgust than the President.

The "tea-baggers" also helped to put up candidates in several important races. Ms O'Donnell waves their flag (or rather the Constitution). So does Sharron Angle who may unseat Harry Reid, the Senate majority leader, in Nevada. Mr Reid hopes to stave off disaster by casting Ms Angle as a dangerous extremist. Indeed, she once suggested that the public consider "Second Amendment" remedies to take down Congress. The Second Amendment to the Constitution allows citizens to take up arms.

Murder, of a hypothetical sort, even seeped recently into the race for New York governor. Carl Paladino, a property tycoon and Tea Party favourite, astonished establishment Republicans by defeating their chosen candidate, Rick Lazio, in the primaries and is now the man trying to beat the Democrat Andrew Cuomo. He has promised to take a "baseball bat" to the state capital, Albany, and recently revealed his bigoted views on homosexuality. But his poll numbers plummeted after being caught by video cameras threatening to "take out" a reporter from the New York Post whose line of questioning he didn't fancy.

So it is not just that the country is about to lurch to the Republicans, reversing huge Democratic advances achieved in 2006 and 2008. It is the Republican Party itself that is being dragged rightwards by these Tea Party candidates. Mr Rubio, who preaches American "exceptionalism" – God made America best – is set to win the Senate race in Florida. In Alaska, Joe Miller, who wants to abolish federal social welfare programmes and several government departments, is also looking good for the Senate.

Voters in Connecticut are choosing in their Senate race between Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat who has long been the state attorney general, and Linda McMahon, a former chief executive of WWE – World Wrestling Entertainment – which specialises in man-on-man violence for fun. (She is unlikely to win.)

The fresh march of conservatism is also on view in some of the ballot initiatives voters will be considering, such as the one in Colorado that would outlaw abortions even in cases of incest and rape. California voters seem to be split on an initiative that would repeal greenhouse emission laws that have the made the state a leader in the effort to combat global warming in the US. Al Gore is appealing to voters to oppose it.

Much about this election is confounding to the President and his advisers. The government workforce has, in fact, shrunk since Mr Obama took office. Most non-partisan economists concur, meanwhile, that the actions taken early in this administration to stabilise the economy were crucial. The car industry is back on track, even back in the black. Many argue, indeed, that a bigger stimulus would have been in order if only Congress had had the courage to approve it. In opposition, meanwhile, the Republicans have been cynical in their opposition to all and everything Mr Obama attempts.

In fact, a relative landslide of legislation has got through Congress under this White House, from healthcare to financial reform. But follow any of the more conservative candidates on the campaign trail and their supporters spit about a president bent on taking away their liberties and failing to pay heed to the words of the founding fathers. The radical Constitution defenders, which means almost everyone in the Tea Party movement, decry anyone for considering it a "living document" open to revision, amendment, even interpretation. Never mind that the view is entirely anti-historical. The Constitution was precisely meant to be living. (Why so many amendments otherwise?)

A former director of a top airline recently told me that he took greatest exception to Mr Obama because he is insufficiently patriotic. He does not always have the flag behind him when he gives press conferences and, in his words, "seems to want to dispel" the idea that the United States is indeed unparalleled. A passport control officer, on seeing he had a foreign correspondent at his counter recently, spent 10 minutes decrying his own president for "apologising" for the United States and bowing to the King of Saudi Arabia.

Mr Obama, not to be deterred, is now in full-bore campaign mode (getting maybe 5,000 people at his rallies against 50,000 two years ago) and has just finished a tour of western states to support candidates there. In several other parts of the country, the Democrats don't want him anywhere close. They would rather be on stage with his wife, Michelle, or Bill Clinton, the most popular Democrat in the country.

That Mr Obama is toxic to some even in his own party has many explanations. He is the victim of the sky-high expectations that his 2008 victory generated. For an orator of such skill, he has been oddly incapable of communicating effectively in office. He seems aloof and, well, a bit of a bore.

But, most of all, he and his party will be bashed on Tuesday week, because Americans are as demoralised as they have been in generations. You know that because the exceptionalism line is coming up so often. And because of those unemployment numbers. The mood won't lift until the economy does. It is a mercy, then, that we have candidates such as Ms O'Donnell in 2010, because she has inadvertently injected humour into an election season that is otherwise all about anger and peevishness.