Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-Ill.), a freshman from a safe seat in Chicago’s suburbs, was just about to deliver his speech against the American Health Care Act when he heard a commotion on the House floor. The bill was being pulled. Democrats, who up until that moment thought the Republicans might yank a rabbit out of the hat, began celebrating, and Krishnamoorthi thought back to election night, when he learned that he would be coming to Washington with President Trump.
“I thought this repeal bill would sail through,” he said. “It was the president’s number one priority. And what was incredible about this process was the phone calls — we had 1,959 phone calls in opposition to the American Health Care Act. We had 30 for it.”
On Friday afternoon, as congressional Democrats learned that the GOP had essentially given up on repealing the Affordable Care Act, none of them took the credit. They had never really cohered around an anti-AHCA message. (As recently as Wednesday, House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi was still using the phrase “make America sick again,” which most Democrats had abandoned.) They’d been sidelined legislatively, as Republicans tried to pass a bill on party lines. They’d never called supporters to the Capitol for a show of force, as Republicans had done, several times, during the 2009-2010 fight to pass the Affordable Care Act.
Instead, Democrats watched as a roiling, well-organized “resistance” bombarded Republicans with calls and filled their town hall meetings with skeptics. The Indivisible coalition, founded after the 2016 election by former congressional aides who knew how to lobby their old bosses, was the newest and flashiest. But it was joined by MoveOn, which reported 40,000 calls to congressional offices from its members; by Planned Parenthood, directly under the AHCA’s gun; by the Democratic National Committee, fresh off a divisive leadership race; and by the AARP, which branded the bill as an “age tax” before Democrats had come up with a counterattack.
Congressional Democrats did prime the pump. After their surprise 2016 defeat, they made Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) the outreach director of the Senate caucus. Sanders’s first project was “Our First Stand,” a series of rallies around the country, organized by local Democrats and following a simple format. Elected officials would speak; they would then pass the microphone to constituents who had positive stories to tell about the ACA.
“What we’re starting to do, for the first time in the modern history of the Democratic Party, is active grass-roots organizing,” Sanders said in a January interview. “We’re working with unions, we’re working with senior groups, and we’re working with health-care groups. We’re trying to rally the American people so we can do what they want. And that is not the repeal of the Affordable Care Act.”
The turnout for the rallies exceeded expectations, though their aggregate total, over 70-odd cities, would be dwarfed by the Women’s March one week later. More importantly, they proved that there was a previously untapped well of goodwill for the ACA — which had polled negatively for seven years — and it smoothed over divisions inside the party. Days after Barack Obama had blamed “Bernie Sanders supporters” for undermining support for the ACA, Sanders was using his campaign mailing list to save the law.
“It was the town halls, and the stories, that convinced me that people might actually stop this bill,” said Tom Perriello, a former Democratic congressman now running an insurgent campaign for governor of Virginia, with his career-ending vote for the ACA front and center.
The outsider approach to lobbying grew from there, in ways that quickly came to worry Republicans. Indivisible-affiliated groups advertised congressional town halls and flooded them. Like the Jan. 14 rallies, the town hall tactic mirrored what the tea party movement did in 2009. Like the Democrats of that year, many Republicans responded glibly, blaming out-of-state (or district) rabble-rousers and searching for the invisible hand of George Soros. Among the Republicans who took the protests seriously was Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Ala.), who would go on to oppose AHCA from the right.
“I don’t know if we’re going to be able to repeal Obamacare now because these folks who support Obamacare are very active,” Brooks told a radio host in February. “They’re putting pressure on congressman and there’s not a counter-effort to steel the spine of some of these congressmen in tossup districts around the country.”
Beltway groups were helping organize the opposition, and did not pretend otherwise. But they were effective because they had actual grass-roots buy-in. Elizabeth Juviler co-founded an Indivisible group in the district of Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-N.J.). “He’d never taken a position against the party,” Juviler said in an interview. “By all accounts, he’s an affable person, but he wasn’t accessible.”
The group, NJ11th for Change, birddogged the Republican congressman with two tactics. First, it held mock town hall events in all four of the counties he represented. “Thousands” of people showed, according to Juviler; all were informed of how to call his office. When the health-care bill was dropped, Frelinghuysen was besieged with calls. And on Friday, he announced that he would oppose AHCA. According to Joe Dinkin, a spokesman for the Working Families Party, there were dozens of stories like that.
“For the first time in a long time, a pretty sizable number of Republicans were more scared of grass-roots energy of the left than of primaries on the right,” said Dinkin.
Helpless to defeat the bill with their numbers — and not even consulted by Republicans who intended to push it through — Democrats counted on the grass-roots energy to grind the majority down. There was no big rally at the Capitol, because the activism in districts was seen as more effective.
“Those big rallies get a lot of media coverage, but they’re not effective,” said Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.), the co-chairman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus.
This week, as Republicans fumbled the AHCA, Democrats held relatively low-key events to draw attention to their fight. At each, they credited activists with slowing down the bill and derided Republicans for being led by Trump’s whims.
“Organizers had a first victory today,” said Rep. Primila Jayapal (D-Wash.), at a small CPC rally after the bill’s delay Thursday. “Across the country, they pummeled Republicans for this horrible bill.”
And when the bill was pulled, Pelosi joined a rally of just a few dozen people across from the Capitol, organized by MoveOn.org. She took off her heels and led the crowd in a literal jump for joy, as the members of her emboldened caucus began fundraising off the Republican failure.
“You organized across the country,” read a fundraising email from Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) after the vote. “You showed up to Republicans’ townhalls and told them your stories about the ACA saving your life. You called your Representatives and asked them to vote no. Members of Congress reported receiving thousands of calls from constituents almost uniformly against repeal.”