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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