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Testing the Tea Party: Will the movement live or die?

By Shannon Travis, CNN
The true test of the Tea Party movement's impact will come on Election Day.
The true test of the Tea Party movement's impact will come on Election Day.
  • Tea Party movement is bubbling with the hope of electoral success in the midterms
  • Movement hopes to change makeup of Congress and how lawmakers are elected
  • Tea Party has fired up many conservatives and some independents
  • Until the midterms, it is difficult to measure the true impact of the Tea Party movement

Who and what makes up the Tea Party movement? Don't miss CNN's unprecedented documentary "Boiling Point: Inside the Tea Party," Saturday and Sunday night at 8 ET on CNN.

(CNN) -- In a few days, Americans could carve out a monument to the Tea Party's power -- or etch out the movement's political tombstone.

The outcome of the midterm elections will either validate the Tea Party as a national force or cause both Democrats and Republicans to second-guess the movement's impact. But dead or alive after Election Day, the Tea Party has earned a place in history.

The movement was born of frustration and anger at the political establishment and steeped in economic anxiety. It now bubbles with the hope of electoral success in the midterm elections.

But how did it get here?

"The Tea Party movement ... would never have come about if it weren't for the fact that the public lost confidence in both political parties," Sal Russo of the Tea Party Express told CNN. Russo is a longtime Republican operative and chief strategist at the Express. Some have called him the Tea Party's Karl Rove.

"You know, sometimes people will say, 'Well, why did you get started only under Obama?' " Russo said. "Well it didn't. It started in terms of people's unhappiness, really -- in the second term of the Bush administration, where, you know, the government ... kept growing and deficits kept increasing."

A timeline of the movement
Faces of the movement
Tea Party: A glimpse into history

Record spending during the Bush administration caused conservative consternation. But many activists cite a few events during the end of President Bush's term and the beginning of President Obama's, as the final straws: the bailout of banks, the bailout of two of the Big Three automakers and the economic stimulus plan.

Many conservatives, angry over what they saw as the government's excesses, discovered others who felt the same way in Internet groups, Twitter, Facebook and other social media.

Russo told CNN that at that time, "Millions of Americans [were] home throwing their slipper at the TV set or the radio, because they're unhappy with what they see."

Then, like a climax to an unfolding tale, along came Mary and Rick.

On February 10, 2009, Mary Rakovich stood outside a town hall meeting that Obama was having in Fort Myers, Florida, and protested the economic stimulus. With two bad hips, a walker and several anti-stimulus signs, Rakovich essentially took on the leader of the free world. Many activists believe she was the first person to publicly protest Obama's economic agenda.

The stimulus bill "had nothing to do with job creation whatsoever," Rakovich told CNN, a sentiment echoed by many Republican critics.

The White House emphatically states that the stimulus is responsible for about 3 million jobs. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, in its August report, estimated that the stimulus "increased the number of people employed by between 1.4 million and 3.3 million" in the second quarter.

Nine days after Rakovich's protest, CNBC business reporter Rick Santelli publicly mounted his own against the president's $75 billion plan to help struggling homeowners. It happened as Santelli reported live from the floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange on February 19, 2009.

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"The government is promoting bad behavior," Santelli said in a tirade, claiming that all Americans would be forced to "subsidize the losers' mortgages."

Santelli continued: "This is America. How many of you people want to pay for your neighbor's mortgage that has an extra bathroom and can't pay their bills. Raise their hand. President Obama, are you listening?"

Then the CNBC reporter uttered the words that have, since then, stuck in the public conscious.

"We're thinking of having a Chicago tea party in July."

The video went viral, crystallized conservative anger against the deficit and government spending, and apparently gave the movement its name.

Today, some 17 months after Santelli's "rant heard round the world" sparked nationwide street protests and bus tours, the Tea Party movement hopes to change the current makeup of Congress and forever change the way lawmakers are elected.

There is already a Tea Party caucus on Capitol Hill, led by Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann. She and others hope to grow the group by adding a number of Tea Party-backed candidates.

Among Senate hopefuls, Republican Sharron Angle of Nevada hopes to oust Majority Leader Harry Reid, the most powerful Democrat in the Senate. Republican Rand Paul of Kentucky hopes to ride the same wave of Tea Party support that thrust him to primary victory to a general election win. And Republican Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania hopes tea partiers will help him defeat Democrat Joe Sestak.

Related: Is the Tea Party becoming a religious movement?

In August, Joe Miller of Alaska had Tea Party help in beating Sen. Lisa Murkowski in their state's GOP Senate primary. Now he hopes support from the movement will propel him to victory over Murkowski's write-in bid and Democratic challenger Scott McAdams.

And of course, Tea Party-backed Christine O'Donnell in Delaware hopes her tremendous support among Tea Party activists helps her beat Democrat Chris Coons. And that an O'Donnell win --- an uphill struggle according to the polls -- might finally put to rest the controversy over her previously admitting to having "dabbled in witchcraft."

Until the midterm election on Nov. 2, it will be difficult to measure the true impact of the Tea Party movement. This election cycle, it successfully has fired up many conservatives and some independents. And the movement has knocked aside more traditional, establishment Republicans in favor of more staunch, "Constitutional conservatives."

But the Tea Party's true power will likely be decided by this equation: Do those same conservatives have enough appeal to independents and even enough Democrats to win in a general election?

"We'll have to wait and see," Utah Republican Sen. Robert Bennett told CNN. Bennett's re-election bid was smacked back partly because of Tea Party opposition.

"There are people in the Tea Party movement who simply cite the slogans, and they don't want to pay attention to governing," Bennett said.

O'Donnell's win could be pivotal in which party controls the Senate. Her Republican primary opponent, GOP establishment-backed Rep. Mike Castle, was considered such a shoo-in to win the seat previously held by Vice President Joe Biden that Democrats, including Biden's son Beau, passed on the opportunity to run for the seat.

If the Tea Party is able to elect its candidates, it will likely hold even more sway over the Republican Party, threaten the Democratic Party, wield even more influence over the electorate and possibly play king- or queen-maker for the 2012 presidential election.

But outgoing Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter senses danger in the Tea Party.

"I think it is really problem-some for democracy when the fringes of the parties gain control," Specter told CNN. "And to have a Republican Party go so far to the right is a real problem. I think the only answer is for Middle America to take some greater interest in the political process so that you have the real will of the people as opposed to the people on the extremes."

If Tea Party-backed candidates mostly fail on Election Day, the only success the Tea Party may be able to count is, simply, splitting the Republican Party in two -- between moderates and conservatives.

Tea Party favorite Sarah Palin recently told CNN, "You know, I don't think that it will, because I think more of the machine within the GOP is going to understand that this 'We the people' message is rising, and it's resonating throughout with the Independents, with hardcore conservatives, with moderates, because it's just so full of common sense and time-tested truths that can put the economy on the right track."

Then Palin warned, "Heaven forbid that the GOP machine strays from this message. If so, the GOP is through."

Part of complete coverage on
Boiling Point: Sneak Peek
He came out of nowhere to defeat incumbent Sen. Lisa Murkowski in Alaska's GOP primary. But Joe Miller's Tea Party-infused campaign can't celebrate just yet.
Boiling Point: Key Players
Before there was Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck, there was Deborah Johns, Mary Rakovich and Sal Russo -- watching as voter frustrations reached a boiling point.
The Tea Party: The path to power
In the past two years, the Tea Party movement has developed into a juggernaut that's rocked primaries and rattled incumbents.
A glimpse into populist history
The Tea Party is just one of numerous populist movements to take hold of U.S. politics.
What is the Tea Party?
You've heard all about the Tea Party movement, but do you know what activists stand for?