Saying their patience is at an end, conservative activist groups backed by the billionaire Koch brothers and other powerful interests on the right are mobilizing to pressure Republicans to fulfill their promise to swiftly repeal the Affordable Care Act.
Their message is blunt and unforgiving, with the goal of reawakening some of the most extensive conservative grass-roots networks in the country. It is a reminder that even as Republicans control both the White House and Congress for the first time in a decade, the party’s activist wing remains restless and will not go along passively for the sake of party unity.
With angry constituents storming town hall-style meetings across the country and demanding that Congress not repeal the law, these new campaigns are a sign of a growing concern on the right that lawmakers might buckle to the pressure.
“We’ve been patient this year, but it is past time to act and to act decisively,” said Tim Phillips, the president of Americans for Prosperity, which is coordinating the push with other groups across the Kochs’ political network. “Our network has spent more money, more time and more years fighting Obamacare than anything else. And now with the finish line in sight, we cannot allow some folks to pull up and give up.”
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The new mantra could be summed up as repeal, replace or revolt. Beyond the Koch network, other well-financed conservative groups like the Club for Growth and FreedomWorks are also increasing the pressure. All together, the new campaigns will involve advertising, rallies, phone calls to the Capitol switchboard and efforts to confront lawmakers in their offices with documentation of their own words about the need for repeal.
The Koch groups are calling their campaign “You Promised,” and are prepared to spend heavily, they said.
The initial phase, which will cost in the low six figures, will include a nationwide digital advertising campaign featuring testimonials from people who say they were harmed by the Affordable Care Act. On Tuesday, the groups will kick off the effort with a rally near the Capitol, from which they will dispatch activists to congressional offices. Beyond that, Americans for Prosperity said it was prepared to deploy “significant resources” as needed.
FreedomWorks, which is planning a rally in Washington on March 15 to inaugurate its “month of action” on the Affordable Care Act, is sending its activists to Capitol Hill with sheafs of quotes from Republicans who have called for repeal. The plan is to track down those Republicans and make them face their own words.
“I think that the only way we get members of Congress to stay the course on this is with constituent pressure,” said Noah Wall, the national director of campaigns for FreedomWorks. “I’m going to fill their offices with really angry constituents, and they’re going to listen,” he said.
“And if they don’t,” he continued, “I’m going to go back into their district and fill their district offices with angry constituents. And we'll do this again and again.”
The sudden caution of the Republican Party leadership, as it grapples with the enormously complicated challenge of replacing the Affordable Care Act, has baffled conservatives who have been fighting the health law for years. In the House, Republicans have voted dozens of times to dismantle the law, and it has been a primary issue in congressional races since 2010. Repealing the law, many conservative lawmakers believe, is the one clear mandate they have from voters.
“The reality is, this is existential for Republicans,” said David McIntosh, the president of the Club for Growth, which has been sending emails regularly to its 100,000 members warning that Republicans could be stalling the repeal indefinitely. The group plans to directly target party leaders like Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, and Paul Ryan, the House speaker.
“If they don’t repeal Obamacare and replace it,” McIntosh added, “I don’t think they'll stay in the majority in the next election.”
Implicit in the repeal push is a threat that conservative groups have always wielded over the party: primary challenges.
And this early rift between the party’s activist wing and its leadership in Washington could be a taste of what Republicans can expect now that they control the government entirely and are no longer able to blame Democrats for blocking their agenda. After making bold promises over the past few years on issues like overhauling expensive government programs, rewriting the tax code and defunding Planned Parenthood, Republicans face voter demands to follow through.
Republicans remain unable to agree on a health care plan that satisfies both moderates and hard-liners. As President Donald Trump himself acknowledged last week when he tried to explain the delay — “Nobody knew that health care could be so complicated,” he said — it is no easy task to pass a measure that could leave millions uninsured. And polls now show Americans’ attitudes toward the law are improving as they worry about what could happen if it is suddenly jettisoned.
Democrats, who have been cramming town hall-style meetings to implore Republican lawmakers not to take apart the health law, seem content to let their opponents fight it out, hoping for an impasse.
“Their rhetoric that has enabled them to stir up the far right is in collision with the truth,” said Thomas Perez, chairman of the Democratic National Committee.
The repeal effort by the conservative groups is intended to sway members of Congress who may be hesitating because of public pressure back home. That pressure, conservatives said, is no reason to renege.
“This issue has been litigated in four federal elections, and the result has been historic Republican majorities in Congress,” Phillips of Americans for Prosperity said. “That’s why there is no sympathy when some Republicans talk about contentious town halls or a few hundred calls into their office.”
Americans for Prosperity, which has spent tens of millions of dollars in advertising opposing the Affordable Care Act, is bringing back some of the subjects of its initial ads — ordinary people who spoke about the problems with “government-run medicine” — for its new push. And it is arming activists with supporting evidence — it found, for instance, that 98 percent of Republicans in the Senate, or 51 of the 52, had voted at one point to repeal the law.
“Congressional Republicans have promised an Obamacare repeal in unequivocal terms,” Phillips said. “It’s time for them to keep their promise.”