WASHINGTON — Tea Party activists are mounting a nostalgia tour of sorts this month, a campaign across the country to recapture the magic from the summer of 2009 in hopes of pressuring members of Congress to strip funding from the movement’s public enemy No. 1: “Obamacare.”
There is a key difference from the fervent Tea Party protests of four years ago: Instead of targeting Democrats, conservative groups are confronting members of the Republican Party whom they perceive as weak in their commitment to kill the national health care overhaul.
Despite warnings from GOP leaders that the strategy is political folly, Tea Party activists are demanding that Republican lawmakers threaten to shut down the government as a dramatic way to stop funding for the plan.
At a town hall in Charlotte on Monday, a woman stood up and interrupted North Carolina Republican Representative Robert Pittenger, shouting: “We need to show the American people we stand for conservative values.” The audience applauded.
The challenge was reminiscent of the splash the Tea Party, at its height, made four summers ago at lawmakers’ traditional August Town Hall gatherings. Emotions ran so high in some places that heckling and fistfights broke out, and state troopers were called in to stand guard. Death threats and effigies of congressmen were delivered.
By most measures, Pittenger is the kind of lawmaker whom Tea Party leaders should embrace. He has sponsored numerous bills to repeal Obama’s health reform law. But his nuanced message at the recent town meeting — that he would not vote to gut health care funding because it was a futile gesture, given the Democrat-controlled Senate would never go along — did not resonate with the crowd.
His stance was immediately repackaged as a simple “no” and posted on a Tea Party website.
Tea Party organizers say lawmakers should expect more of the same in coming weeks. Conservative activists in South Carolina, Texas, Indiana, Wisconsin, and Tennessee are also planning to grill GOP members over the next two weeks.
The activists want senators and representatives to refuse to vote in favor of continued government funding in the fall unless such a budget deal pulls funding from the health care law, whose key benefits are set to begin in January.
But some Republicans have denounced the idea of linking the health care law to the general budget, saying it is irresponsible to threaten a government shutdown — a tactic that in the past has backfired, as measured in approval ratings, on Republicans.
To avoid being targeted by the Tea Party campaign, many elected officials are shying away from publicizing their August forums or have decided against holding them at all.
Instead, they are holding one-on-one meetings with constituents, scheduled in advance. Some are choosing to conduct town halls over the telephone via conference calls or over the Internet on Google “hangouts” — where their staffs can exert more control over what questions get asked. Others are turning town halls into “invite only” events.
“It’s outrageous,” said Matt Kibbe, head of FreedomWorks, a major Tea Party group with headquarters in Washington. “Regardless of your political affiliation, it seems like there’s a defacto obligation to listen to constituents and engage in that process. People are pretty frustrated about Obamacare and having nowhere to vent their frustration only builds the pressure.”
Tea Party groups are urging their members to help compile calendars and maps across the country noting where town halls will occur. When none are scheduled, activists are e-mailing and calling lawmakers’ offices demanding one.
Some conservatives are organizing their own “mock” town halls in an effort to hold members accountable for their campaign promises, using life-sized cardboard cutouts to represent targeted lawmakers. A Tea Party group in Manatee County, Fla. is holding a town hall next Tuesday focused on dismantling the law. So far, organizers said, no federal lawmakers are planning to attend.
“There was a vocal outcry against Obamacare in 2009, and it’s even stronger now that we see what’s in it,” said Doug Egger, a 66-year-old real estate broker from Bradenton and a member of Tea Party Manatee.
In Dallas on Wednesday evening, activists gathered at an IHOP restaurant to plan an Aug. 17 town hall targeting Senator John Cornyn, the Republican whip who recently withdrew his signature from a letter that calls for defunding the health law as a condition for approving ongoing government funding. Since Cornyn has yet to schedule a town hall, Tea Party members say they plan to represent him using an empty chair and a milk carton plastered with a picture of his face and the word “Missing.”
“These Republicans are operating based on fear. We have a bunch of cowards in office, grown men acting like chickens,” said Katrina Pierson, a 37-year-old founder of the Garland Tea Party who is organizing the event. “We sent them to Washington to do a job, not be Democrats’ whipping boys. And Obamacare is where the line needs to be drawn.”
A Cornyn spokeswoman said Wednesday that the senator held a tele-town hall last week, taking calls from the Dallas area, but Pierson said none of the activists she knew were notified. Cornyn’s spokeswoman also noted that while Cornyn did remove his name from the letter, he is cosponsoring Senator Ted Cruz’s bill to defund the law.
At an Illinois town hall meeting on Monday, Republican Congressman Aaron Schock said those threatening to hold the government budget hostage over health care were misguided, “beating their chests.”
“If you’re going to take a hostage, you have to be willing to shoot it,” Schock said. To which an audience member gleefully said, “Kill it.”
In Tennessee, Tea Party activists trying to unseat Senator Lamar Alexander, a two-term Republican seen as a moderate, are planning to highlight his voting record at public demonstrations and to vet candidates to run against him in a primary. The senator will be represented by a 3-foot tall terracotta rhinoceros signifying a Republican in Name Only (RINO) — in other words, a Democrat in Republican clothing.
“The best way to send a message to these folks if they won’t meet with you is just to primary them,” said Katherine Hudgens, a Tea Party activist in Tennessee. “We may not beat them but we will make them spend money and make them very, very uncomfortable. We will get them one way or another.”
Indiana Tea Party activists lament that their three freshmen representatives — all Republicans — have a voting record that falls in line with party leadership, not along the more conservative lines demanded by the Tea Party. The trio earned a mere 54 percent on the FreedomWorks rating scale, which scores members of Congress on key votes, with scores of 100 going to members who consistently stand for budget and tax cuts.
“That’s not acceptable,” said Greg Fettig, the midwest regional coordinator for FreedomWorks.
“What we’re trying to do is demand town hall meetings and get them publicly, on the record, to state whether they will or will not vote to defund Obamacare,” he said. “If they will not do that, they’ve just opened themselves up to the very likelihood of being primaried.’’
The latest polls show that Americans continue to oppose the health law, with 51.3 percent against it compared to 39.7 percent in favor, according to a Real Clear Politics average.
Democrats, mindful of the wave of Tea Party victories in the 2010 midterms that helped Republicans win control of the House, are launching their own efforts to fight back in the high-stakes public messaging war this recess.
Americans United for Change, a Washington-based liberal advocacy group, has begun touting the benefits of health reform in 10 key states, including Texas, North Carolina, and Florida.
Brad Woodhouse, the group’s president, called the Tea Party tactics a “train wreck” for the Republican Party that Democrats can exploit.
“Ever since 2009, the perception has been that Democrats and progressives for the most part have been on the defensive about Obamacare,” Woodhouse said. “It’s critical now that we go on the offense.”
The group plans to hold town halls with Democratic members to promote the law beginning next week.
Organizers affiliated with Americans United for Change hold daily calls with other liberal groups to plot strategy about deploying activists to Republican town halls around the country, sharing talking points and potential questions.
They are also holding rallies and protests outside members’ district offices, waving signs that say “Hands off my Obamacare.”
“It’s guerrilla warfare,” said Jeremy Funk, the group’s spokesman. “We’ve learned our lesson, and we’re not taking this lying down. We’re going to beat them at their own game this recess.”Tracy Jan can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter@GlobeTracyJan.