Sherese Steffens wasn’t politically active until President Barack Obama took office in 2009.
Today she’s rallying against the federal health care law, a proposed cap-and-trade system to control greenhouse gases and other government expenditures she considers wasteful.
“The federal government is taking over every aspect of our lives,” she said. “I’m afraid we’re going to become a socialist country.”
A Tucson resident since 1985, Steffens said she found a way to channel her frustration toward big government through the Pima County Tea Party Patriots.
On a recent Saturday afternoon, she and several dozen others attended a barbecue rally the group organized for congressional candidate Jesse Kelly, whose upset GOP primary win over a more established candidate was attributed to tea party support.
Wearing Jesse Kelly for Congress T-shirts, Lee King, and his wife, Bev, of Tucson, said they’d already cast early ballots for Kelly because of out-of-control government spending.
“The government should run their life like I run mine,” Lee said. “If I can’t afford it, I won’t buy it.”
It’s a sentiment echoed by tea party activists across the country.
What began last year as rallies to protest government spending has emerged as a political force that could influence elections across the nation, according to David Berman, a senior researcher at Arizona State University’s Morrison Institute.
“It’s going to be a bad year for Democrats,” he said.
While there is no central tea party organization and can be some disagreement among groups, Berman said, there are three basic principles they all champion: fiscal responsibility, limited government and support of a free market.
Richard Herrera, an associate professor at Arizona State University’s School of Politics and Global Studies, said that regardless of party affiliation – not all tea party members are Republicans, he noted – they share one crucial commonality: They’re frustrated with government, and not just the federal government.
He said this disapproval is due in part to the economic climate and the election of a president with a liberal approach.
“There is this nervousness and frustration,” he said. “America is in a crisis, of which magnitude we haven’t seen since the 1930s.”
Like so many others, discontent and nervousness spurred Diane Burnett of Scottsdale to become a tea party activist.
Burnett said her worry for her son’s generation led her to the movement and through it to the campaign office of David Schweikert, where she makes calls reminding registered Republicans to vote.
“As a small business owner and as a mom, I was concerned,” she said. “The spending is out of control.”
Burnett, who was never involved in politics until two years ago, started the website www.arizonateaparty.com. She uses the site to help coordinate tea party events around the state.
Candidates with tea party support have the potential to upset incumbent Democrats, Berman said. He pointed to the Schweikert’s challenge to incumbent Democrat Harry Mitchell as a race to watch.
“District 5 is close,” he said. “They’re right on the cusp of discontent.”
Berman said Republican Paul Gosar has a good chance to unseat first-term Democrat Ann Kirkpatrick in Congressional District 1. Jesse Kelly has less of a chance of unseating Democrat Gabrielle Giffords in District 8, Berman said, because he is “extreme in rhetoric.”
But tea party activists don’t want to be portrayed as radicals, Burnett said. They’re simply followers of the Constitution.
“We believe the Founding Fathers are rolling in their graves,” she said.
Back at the barbecue, Kelly stands on a ledge and announces he’s ready to take Q&A from the group.
An older woman shouts out a question about government regulation and salmonella outbreaks in the chicken industry.
“The government right now, they look out for their own best interests,” Kelly said. “It’s our job to protect ourselves, because no one else is going to look out for your best interests like you.”
The crowd applauds.
As the questions wind down, Steffens chimes in, asking Kelly what people can do to help get him elected.
Making calls and putting a bumper sticker on your car are two ways to help spread the word, he tells them.
Steffens and her group aren’t just focused on Kelly’s race. There are other more local races coming up, from Tucson City Council to the school board they care about.
After this election, she said, the Pima County Tea Party Patriots will start educating people on what’s coming up in 2012.
“Individual freedom, the right to choose, and the Constitution is our basis,” Steffens said. “Everything revolves around that.”