Conservative Groups Warn GOP Not to Backslide on Obamacare

Activists on the Right say lawmakers should fear them more than they do Democratic protesters.

A man shouts at Rep. Jason Chaffetz during a town hall meeting on Thursday in Cottonwood Heights, Utah.
AP Photo/Rick Bowmer
Andrea Drusch
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Andrea Drusch
Feb. 13, 2017, 8:01 p.m.

Re­pub­lic­an law­makers bom­barded by Obama­care pro­test­ers can ex­pect little sym­pathy from con­ser­vat­ive out­side groups that spent mil­lions help­ing them run on the is­sue for the past four elec­tion cycles.

Lead­ers from the Koch-backed group Amer­ic­ans for Prosper­ity and the con­ser­vat­ive Club for Growth are already warn­ing that if GOP law­makers fail to act swiftly on re­peal­ing and re­pla­cing the health care law, they’ll have more to fear from their own party than the Demo­crats show­ing up at their town halls. Stop­ping short of threat­en­ing primary chal­lenges, both groups said they would use paid me­dia and grass­roots or­gan­izers to keep the heat on any Re­pub­lic­an who stands in the way of quick ac­tion.

That warn­ing comes as Demo­crat­ic pro­test­ers have be­come fix­tures in mem­bers’ town halls, in­clud­ing in some of the red­dest dis­tricts, like that of Rep. Jason Chaf­fetz in Utah. Though GOP lead­ers down­played the protests at a con­fer­ence meet­ing last week, some Re­pub­lic­ans on the Hill have star­ted call­ing for more de­tails on an Obama­care-re­place­ment plan be­fore ab­ol­ish­ing a law that gave cov­er­age to some of their con­stitu­ents.

Speak­ing at a private mem­ber re­treat in Phil­adelphia last month whose pro­ceed­ings were secretly re­cor­ded and dis­trib­uted to news or­gan­iz­a­tions, Rep. Tom Ma­cAr­thur of New Jer­sey warned that if Re­pub­lic­ans move “too fast” on the re­peal, they would “pull the rug out from un­der” the mil­lions of people who re­ceived cov­er­age from Medi­caid ex­pan­sion.

But after years of help­ing Re­pub­lic­ans cam­paign on prom­ises to get rid of the law, AFP Pres­id­ent Tim Phil­lips said he be­lieved the party’s “biggest per­il” was in fail­ing to fol­low through quickly. In an in­ter­view with Na­tion­al Journ­al, Phil­lips called on Re­pub­lic­ans to “go big and go fast” on re­peal­ing the law, sug­gest­ing his group wouldn’t hes­it­ate to with­draw sup­port from any mem­ber who stood in the way.

“There isn’t a Re­pub­lic­an elec­ted in the last four cycles who didn’t say Obama­care was a dis­aster and that they were go­ing to go in there and re­peal it,” said Phil­lips.

Point­ing to a 2015 re­peal bill sponsored by then-Rep. Tom Price that passed both cham­bers, Phil­lips said Re­pub­lic­ans should at min­im­um be will­ing to re­peat votes they’ve already taken, quip­ping he was “con­fid­ent those wer­en’t just show votes.” (Many House GOP con­ser­vat­ives agree, and hope the cham­ber will pass the 2015 bill again.)

“When we see some of the con­sterna­tion that some of the tapes from Phil­adelphia showed, plus the two town halls that were pro­tested … I think those mem­bers have more to fear from the folks who be­lieved that prom­ise and punched the tick­et for them … than they do from their ideo­lo­gic­al op­pon­ents on the Left,” Phil­lips said.

Though AFP his­tor­ic­ally hasn’t en­gaged in primary fights, it did pull sup­port from former Sen. Kelly Ayotte of New Hamp­shire in her 2016 reelec­tion after she sup­por­ted Pres­id­ent Obama’s Clean Power Plan. Phil­lips said his group could do something sim­il­ar in 2018, as well as paid me­dia and grass­roots cam­paigns to push Re­pub­lic­ans to move fast.

Giv­en the grow­ing in­flu­ence of AFP’s state chapters, one GOP strategist sug­ges­ted los­ing that sup­port could be a sig­ni­fic­ant blow to Re­pub­lic­ans gear­ing up for tough 2018 con­tests.

“It’s not a group that para­chutes in and drops money or something like that. … They really do en­gage with act­iv­ists and vo­lun­teers and oth­ers who are im­port­ant in power­ing Re­pub­lic­an vic­tor­ies,” the strategist said.

Demo­crats, for their part, say the protests of­fer a clear sign of the polit­ic­al per­il Re­pub­lic­ans could face in the midterms if they take away con­stitu­ents’ health care ac­cess.

In a let­ter en­cour­aging the move­ment, Sen­ate Minor­ity Lead­er Chuck Schu­mer and Sen. Bernie Sanders wrote this week­end that “the Re­pub­lic­an Party’s plan to re­peal the Af­ford­able Care Act is in chaos” and “the over­whelm­ing ma­jor­ity of Amer­ic­ans” are con­cerned.

In a nod to that con­cern, Club for Growth Pres­id­ent Dav­id McIn­tosh said GOP lead­ers on the Hill should do a bet­ter job equip­ping their mem­bers to talk about the be­ne­fits of re­peal when fa­cing pro­test­ers. But, he said, GOP lead­ers shouldn’t let those ef­forts slow them down. The Club has spent mil­lions tak­ing sides in in­tra-party battles with­in the GOP, and McIn­tosh vowed to show “tough love” to Re­pub­lic­ans who stood in the way.

Singling out GOP law­makers from states that ex­pan­ded Medi­caid, McIn­tosh said “it’s not right” for those mem­bers to “hold up the whole re­peal and re­place of Obama­care to pro­tect a bad de­cision” made by their states.

In a sim­il­ar nod to the pro­test­ers, Phil­lips said his group would “nev­er pre­tend” that the Left was not ser­i­ous, and that his group would provide re­in­force­ments for those races if Re­pub­lic­ans stood their ground. Point­ing to Demo­crats’ 2012 re­call ef­fort against Wis­con­sin Gov. Scott Walk­er, in which thou­sands of Demo­crats pos­ted up out­side the state cap­it­ol for months, he sug­ges­ted Re­pub­lic­ans toughen up for the battle to come.

“If the Wis­con­sin le­gis­lature or Gov­ernor Walk­er had said, ‘Hey, we’re get­ting a lot of calls, there’s some pro­test­ers; should we keep our word?’—keep your word,” Phil­lips said.

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