“Mitt Romney and the tea party were never a perfect fit,” said Matt Kibbe, president of FreedomWorks, a leading tea party organization.
The current fight is much more suited to the movement, Kibbe said: “When it comes to policy battles, it’s about an idea.”
Obamacare, which seeks to extend health coverage to millions of uninsured Americans, is viewed by tea party activists as a dangerous new government intrusion. They fear it will reduce their choices of medical providers and burden the weak economy. Democrats note the program is modeled in part on a system that Romney put in place in Massachusetts, where he was governor.
Much of the recent tea party activity has been spurred on by Washington-centered groups such as FreedomWorks, Heritage Action for America and the Senate Conservatives Fund, a political action committee started by former U.S. senator Jim DeMint. Activists have used the defund effort to expand their e-mail lists and solicit donations.
As of Friday afternoon, the “Don’t Fund It” Web site run by the Senate Conservatives Fund had almost 2 million signatures — a valuable database of potential supporters.
“To elect true conservative leaders, you have to have money to do that,” said Matt Hoskins, executive director of the PAC, which has spent about $2 million on ads urging lawmakers to defund Obamacare.
Hoskins said the surge of grass-roots support has been largely driven by anxiety about Tuesday’s launch of new health-care marketplace exchanges created under the law. “Before, the problems associated with Obamacare were theoretical,” he said. “Now they’re practical, they’re real, they’re in the news every day.”
The sense of urgency was evident during two recent conference calls that the Tea Party Patriots group held with GOP allies in Congress such as Cruz, Sen. Mike Lee of Utah and Rep. Tom Graves of Georgia. More than 60,000 activists listened in.
“People are very fired up,” said Jenny Beth Martin, the group’s co-founder. “We’ve been concerned about the health-care law since 2009, and now we’re seeing the problems that are coming up with it.”
In meetings, activists swap claims that health-care premiums have gone up or that businesses are cutting employee hours to avoid providing health-care coverage under the law.
“I’m very much in favor of defunding Obamacare,” said Mary Swain, a court clerk in Middletown, Ohio, as she waited for the monthly gathering of a local Republican group to begin this week. “I hope it eventually goes away entirely. To be honest, I think that maybe it was well- intentioned in the beginning, but I think it’s actually going to hurt workers.”
In August, large crowds turned out for a series of “Defund Obamacare” town hall meetings that Heritage Action held around the country featuring Rafael Cruz, father of the Texas senator.
Americans for Prosperity also held a summit in Orlando in late August featuring Ted Cruz that attracted hundreds of activists.
“How do you win this fight?” Cruz asked.
The audience responded in unison: “Don’t blink!”