It was the passage of that legislation, commonly known as Obamacare, that animated the movement when it first emerged in 2009.
“I’ve not seen this level of intensity since we fought to keep Obamacare from passing,” said JoAnn Fleming, executive director of Grassroots America, a group of conservative activists based in Tyler, Tex. “I’m getting calls from people who are not in our network, saying, ‘Can we do something?’ It’s a full-time job just trying to get rid of all my e-mails.”
But the tea party’s renewed presence also poses serious political risks for Republicans, undermining efforts to broaden the party’s appeal. The movement itself could be blamed for contributing to Washington’s dysfunction if it helps set in motion a government shutdown next week or, later in October, a national credit default.
“In the overall scheme of things, it’s largely a sideshow,” Republican strategist Ron Bonjean, a former top Capitol Hill aide, said of the current Obamacare debate roiling Congress. “However, it has stolen the spotlight from the president’s weaknesses and put it right on Republican infighting, and showed a lack of direction about where we want to go strategically as a party.”
The worsening GOP split was on display earlier this week when Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, a tea party leader, held the floor for 21 hours with a marathon speech calling on Republicans to join his effort to defund Obamacare. The tactic infuriated many of his GOP colleagues but further energized the conservative base.
“I like the passion that they bring. The party desperately needs that,” said Frank Donatelli, a veteran GOP leader. But, he added, “the cautionary tale I remind every Republican who I talk to is, ‘You only win elections by putting coalitions together.’ ”
The tea party movement rose to prominence in the early years of Obama’s presidency, helping drive a surge of conservative activism that helped flip control of the House to Republicans in 2010. At the time, according to CBS-New York Times polling, nearly a third of Americans considered themselves tea party supporters.
The movement’s popularity, though faded, shows signs of growing again: A quarter of Americans in a new CBS-New York Times survey between Sept. 19 and 23 said they support the tea party, up four points from two weeks earlier.
The movement exerts substantial sway over the GOP leaders in the House, who backed an effort to strip funding for Obamacare in a budget bill passed last week. The Democratic-controlled Senate stripped out the Obamacare portion Friday and sent it back to the House — setting the stage for a potential government shutdown Tuesday.
“House Republicans are so concerned with appeasing the tea party that they are willing to shut down the government,” Obama said in a statement Friday delivered at the White House.
The movement’s central role in the political debate follows a 2012 election in which the tea party appeared to lose steam, with activists largely uninspired by the presidential race between Obama and GOP candidate Mitt Romney.
“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!”