The sophisticated operations aim to drive a political narrative throughout the month, hoping to produce a strong display of voter sentiment that lawmakers will not be able to ignore when they return to Washington after Labor Day. At that point, they will immediately contend with a showdown over the budget, a House debate on immigration reform and the launch of new state health insurance marketplaces created by the Affordable Care Act.
So this month, the pressure is on. At town hall meetings, lawmakers will face activists calling for a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants. On walks in local neighborhoods, they could run into gun-control advocates, who plan to blanket key districts with fliers. During visits to the county fair, they are likely to encounter voters demanding defunding of President Obama’s signature health-care law.
Liberal groups are employing top-shelf political tactics in their grass-roots advocacy campaigns, driven by the memory of being outflanked by conservative activists in the summer of 2009.
Advocates for an overhaul of immigration laws and backers of the health-care law, among others, are using rapid-response war rooms, district-targeted organizing and elaborate media events to press their case while lawmakers are home in their districts.
They are determined to avoid a repeat of August 2009, when tea party activists and conservative groups descended upon congressional town hall meetings to denounce Obama’s plan to remake the health-care system. The loud and often rowdy opposition emerged as the singular story that August, further galvanizing the tea party movement and helping the GOP take the House in the 2010 midterm elections.
In 2009, “they did a good job of putting us on the defensive,” said Brad Woodhouse, president of the liberal advocacy group Americans United for Change. “Since then, I think it’s been a draw. But we’re not trying to fight them to a draw this August — we’re trying to win.”
With a divided Congress on track to hold one of its least productive sessions in decades, August has taken on heightened importance as an opening to reach recalcitrant members.
“If you’re going to get anything to move, you have to appeal to the lawmakers back at home,” said veteran Republican communications strategist Ron Bonjean.
“The smart outside groups have always used the recess to get their message through,” he added. “It’s just that now, the efforts are much more intense because of the gridlock in Washington.”
Obama has urged his backers to spend the month speaking out on issues such as gun control, climate change and health care, part of an “Action August” effort spearheaded by Organizing for Action, the advocacy group that grew out of his reelection campaign.