Primary elections in 12 states on Tuesday will gauge the extent of voter anger and the desire for change. The contests that will decide the fate of two endangered Washington incumbents - a two-term senator in Arkansas and a six-term congressman in South Carolina - while setting the stage for some of the races in November that could determine the balance of power in Congress.
In an Arkansas runoff, centrist Sen. Blanche Lincoln could fall to a fellow Democrat, Lt. Gov. Bill Halter, who says "the only way to change Washington is to change who we send there." South Carolina Republican Rep. Bob Inglis is trying to fend off primary challengers who have made the race a referendum on his 2008 vote to bail out the nation's banking industry.
The political strength of the conservative tea party movement faces tests in several states, particularly in Nevada, where three Republicans are in a bruising fight for the chance to take on Democrat Harry Reid, the Senate majority leader, in November.
Republicans in California could send two political neophytes, wealthy former business executives Meg Whitman and Carly Fiorina, into races to succeed Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and challenge Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer.
In an election season overshadowed by the ailing economy and unhappiness with Washington, three longtime incumbents already have lost: Republican Sen. Bob Bennett of Utah,
Republican-turned-Democrat Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, and Democratic Rep. Alan Mollohan of West Virginia. A party switcher new on the scene, Democrat-turned-Republican Rep. Parker Griffith of Alabama, failed to win nomination in a primary this past week as voters demanded ideological purity.
A Pew Research Center poll in April found that public confidence in government was at one of the lowest points in a half century. Sen. Bennett calls the political atmosphere toxic. Races on Tuesday will provide fresh evidence of how far people want to go to shake up statehouses and Washington.
"I've become frightened over what our government is doing," says Roxanne Blum, 57, a Republican from Pahrump, Nevada. She's alarmed by the soaring debt and has seen firsthand, through her work in the mortgage industry, the damage caused by Nevada's highest-in-the country foreclosure rate.
Once excited by Reid's ascendancy in Washington leadership, she now sees him as out of touch with his economically troubled home state.
"When he comes here, he does lip service," she says.
Earlier congressional contests have shown that incumbency can be a yoke and that voter discontent is running through both parties, even though the Democrats who control Congress have the most at risk in November's national election. With President Barack Obama's popularity slipping, issues from the health care overhaul law to taxes are defining races.
Tea party-backed Mike Lee, one of two Republicans who advanced to a June 22 primary for Bennett's Utah seat, says there's "a widespread feeling the federal government is growing, taxing, spending and borrowing way too much."
In the Arkansas runoff, Lincoln is coming under fire from the right and left for her health care votes. Unions backing her rival have spent more than $5 million to defeat her. In one ad, she acknowledges the frustration among voters: "I know you're angry at Washington."
The Republican race to succeed Schwarzenegger has been a display of extraordinary spending as well as a test of how far right the party wants to venture on issues such as illegal immigration in a traditionally Democratic-tilting state with a large Hispanic population.
Republican billionaire Whitman, a former eBay chief executive, has invested more than $70 million of her own fortune in the race against state insurance commissioner Steve Poizner, a wealthy former businessman who has put $24 million into his campaign. The all-but-certain Democratic nominee is Attorney General Jerry Brown, who was governor in the 1970s and 1980s.
Whitman and Poizner have challenged each other's conservative credentials in a torrent of negative ads. Poizner supports Arizona's tough illegal immigration law; Whitman does not. Poizner wants to cut off most state services to illegal immigrants and their children; Whitman would not end services for children. In a year of tea party insurgency, "all of the Republican candidates in California have been pulled to the right," says political scientist Bruce Cain of the University of California, Berkeley. The question in November will be whether independents who cast decisive votes follow.
People in the tea party movement believe that government spending and influence should be limited. The movement's name is taken from the Boston Tea Party, a 1773 protest in which activists in the then-British colonies in America boarded ships and threw their cargo of English tea into Boston Harbor in a symbolic act of protest against taxes.
In California's Republican Senate primary, Fiorina, a former Hewlett Packard Co. chief executive who has former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin's endorsement, has a lead in polls over former U.S. Rep. Tom Campbell and state Assemblyman Chuck DeVore, a tea party favorite. Boxer's campaign has depicted the Republicans as out of step with mainstream Californians.
Nevada Republicans appear ready to punish Gov. Jim Gibbons for his messy divorce, potentially making him the first sitting governor to lose a nominating contest in the state in 100 years.
Reid knows he's in trouble. But big-name Republicans skipped the race and he has seen his chances lifted after a caustic Republican primary that could leave him facing tea party favorite Sharron Angle. She wants to abolish the federal income tax code, phase out Social Security for younger workers and eliminate the federal Education Department.
Angle says she's in the mainstream; Reid supporters depict her as out of step with most Nevadans.
In addition to the Inglis race, South Carolina Republicans choose from a field of four candidates hoping to succeed term-limited Republican Gov. Mark Sanford, who was politically and personally damaged by an affair with an Argentine woman.
State Rep. Nikki Haley has the backing of the tea party and Palin, the party's 2008 vice presidential nominee, in her bid to become the state's first female governor.
In the past two weeks, two men have come forward to say they had trysts with her, which she denies, and the primary will tell whom voters believe. In north Georgia, Tom Graves hopes his involvement with the Atlanta Tea Party Patriots will help him defeat Lee Hawkins, another conservative, in a runoff to fill a vacant House seat in a heavily Republican district.
Maine voters will choose nominees for governor in a wide-open race to replace Democratic Gov. John Baldacci, who's completing his second four-year term. A seven-way Republican primary includes tea party favorite Paul LePage. Candidates have been talking about jobs and cutting government regulation.
Iowa has a three-way Republican primary for the right to oppose Democrat Chet Culver, considered one of the nation's most vulnerable governors.
Montana, New Jersey, North Dakota, South Dakota and Virginia also hold primaries.