Give the Tea Party Credit: Their Grassroots Tactics Worked

The government is shut down, America is angry, and the endgame is unclear, but activists have shown their organizing prowess by getting Congress this far.
Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

The march toward government shutdown got its start in mid-July with a meeting in the office of Senator Mike Lee of Utah. Lee and his colleagues Ted Cruz of Texas and Marco Rubio of Florida huddled with representatives of Tea Party groups like Heritage Action, ForAmerica, and the Tea Party Patriots. Their mission: to turn defunding Obamacare from a fringe idea with little congressional support into a popular movement.

It worked. The groundswell the conservative groups helped create over the summer make conservatives in Congress aware of the fight, in turn forcing the hand of Republican leaders. Obamacare has not, of course, been defunded, but it was House Republicans' insistence on crippling the health-care bill as a condition of funding the government that brought about this week's shutdown.

The real reason the House GOP hasn’t backed down and passed a government-funding bill isn’t because of 30-some intractable Tea Party members in their ranks or because Cruz refused to play along. It’s because their loudest, most engaged constituents demanded it, amplified by the savvy, coordinated tactics of the right-wing pressure groups that have proved adept at leveraging grassroots pressure into Washington results. As Representative Greg Walden recently told a group of Republican donors, according to the Daily Beast: “We have to do this because of the Tea Party .... The Tea Party gets involved at the local level."

President Obama’s campaign ground game helped him win reelection; afterward, his supporters vowed to bring some of those tactics to bear on pressuring Congress to enact his agenda. But it’s the Tea Party that has mastered this game, through a combination of savvy tactics and ruthless persistence.

At the time of the meeting in Lee's office, Congress was preparing for its summer vacation, and conservatives faced a dispiriting reality: On October 1, the Obamacare exchanges would open for business. When that happened, “The toothpaste would be out of the tube, and it would be be very difficult to put an end to this,” said Brent Bozell, president of ForAmerica, a little-known but influential conservative group that relies mainly on social media. “It was a last-gasp effort.”

They knew where the pressure points were. Republicans owe their House majority to the Tea Party wave of 2010, which was spurred in turn largely by reaction to the health-care bill. The Tea Party has proved less than adept at winning general elections (see: Obama, President). But it has shown abundantly that it knows how to put the heat on in primaries (see: O'Donnell, Christine). With redistricting largely protecting incumbents in general elections, a primary threat is the biggest fear for most members of Congress.

So the Tea Party groups went on the attack. ForAmerica was the most aggressive, making videos calling out senators as “chicken” — including Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham, both of whom face Tea Party challengers in primaries next year. Texas Senator John Cornyn, who is up for reelection but doesn’t have a challenger, also got one. The activists knew they didn’t have to make an ad for every Republican senator; once a few got the treatment, the rest got the message. Nobody wanted to be next on the list.

“Republicans who had been committing themselves to putting an end to this wretched law since it passed really weren’t doing anything,” Bozell told me. “You had people telling their constituents, ‘I voted against it 39 times’ when those were just meaningless, procedural votes. They'd never made a serious challenge to Obamacare. We concluded this was when it had to happen.”

ForAmerica’s 3.5 million Facebook fans were instructed to call the offices of Republican leaders. They shut down the phone lines of Speaker John Boehner, McConnell, Cornyn, Majority Leader Eric Cantor, Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, and others. When one office line stopped working, they’d redirect callers to a different one. The group says it generated 60,000 calls.

Other groups played complementary roles. Heritage Action drew hundreds to town halls in nine cities. ForAmerica and the Tea Party Patriots teamed up for a tour of a dozen states, the locations strategically chosen for maximum impact — like a rally in Lexington, Kentucky, to target McConnell — and culminating on the lawn of the Capitol. Meanwhile, Tea Party Patriots members held hundreds of rallies and protests in their home districts. Many were mock town halls featuring an empty chair to represent a member of congress who wasn’t meeting with constituents.

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Molly Ball is a staff writer covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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