Tea party challengers’ favorite punching bags? Obamacare and GOP leaders.

Step one: Take a hard-line stance opposing Obamacare. Step two: Run far, far away from Republican congressional leaders.

State sen. Chris McDaniel (R) (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)
State Sen. Chris McDaniel (R) (Rogelio V. Solis/AP)

That's a large part of the playbook for tea party contenders for Congress, at least if five such candidates who visited with reporters Monday in Washington are any indication. The consistency of their opposition on both fronts provided a glimpse at how conservative challengers generally believe they best can fire up the base ahead of the midterm primary and general elections on tap this year.

Speaking at the headquarters of the national tea party group Freedomworks, four of five congressional candidates quickly named the federal health-care law when asked what they are hearing about most on the campaign trail.

"It's what people care the most about," said Matt Bevin (R), a Louisville businessman running to the right of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).

Barry Loudermilk (R), a Georgia state senator running for the U.S. House, added, "As we travel around the district, of course Obamacare is the greatest concern we're hearing because it's affecting every demographic in Georgia."

What about for the people of Mississippi? "There's no more pressing issue than Obamacare," said state Sen. Chris McDaniel (R), who is challenging Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.).

When it comes to fighting the law, lawmakers shouldn't apply "band aids," warned activist Katrina Pierson (R), who is challenging Rep. Pete Sessions (R-Tex.). "We definitely need a full repeal of this bill," she said.

Enthusiasm for congressional Republican leadership was just as lacking.

"Do you want me to comment on that?" asked Bevin sarcastically, in a nod to his challenge against the Senate's top-ranking Republican. He added: "There's a level of cronyism that is destroying this country."

McDaniel is not running against McConnell, but he's no fan. "I'm not terribly pleased with any of the leaders in the Senate, or for that matter, in Washington," he said.

Former congressional aide and now U.S. House candidate Igor Birman said he's been disappointed that "optics has taken a preeminent position over principles and policy."

Loudermilk's take: House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) was willing to sacrifice her speakership for the cause of health care; Republicans should be willing to risk their own power for important causes, too.

Tea party candidates, of course, aren't the only ones railing against Obamacare. In the wake of the law's troubled rollout, Republicans everywhere are going on offense with opposition to the measure.

And on the leadership front, even candidates with support from GOP leaders have shied away from cozying up to them. Just ask Rep. Bradley Byrne (R-Ala.), a Chamber of Commerce Republican who was backed by the leadership PAC of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.). Bryne wouldn't commit to supporting another term as speaker for John Boehner (R-Ohio) during his campaign.

But why? In part because the emergence of tea party candidates like the ones at Freedomworks Monday have made it perilous if not disastrous for GOP contenders to take their foot off the gas on the issues that drive the base.

For tea party candidates, the wager is that on these kinds of issues -- Obamacare being the most prominent one -- the intensity runs so high among GOP primary voters that they can win by getting to the right of the field, even when it comes to figures like McConnell and Cochran, who opposed the health-care law. (The senators' primary opponents would charge they have not fought it hard enough.)

For the McConnells and Cochrans of the world, the wager is that there won't be enough daylight between themselves and their challengers on these issues to cause voters to revolt and kick them out of office.

We'll find out late their year which arguments win where and which ones fall flat.

Sean Sullivan has covered national politics for The Washington Post since 2012.
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