In upholding most of President Barack Obama’s health care law, the Supreme Court handed the tea party a new lease on life.
While activists spouted made-for-TV rancor through megaphones outside the court Thursday, the behind-the-scenes strategists who helped Republicans take the House in 2010 prepared for a flood of donations they said will fuel even greater gains this November.
“From a political standpoint, this is the best decision,” Sal Russo, chief strategist for the Tea Party Express, told Roll Call from his Sacramento, Calif., offices. “Obviously, this kind of a setback will re-energize them.”
The movement, born in 2009 from the opposition to the health care overhaul, has developed a professionalism that few expected, attracting seasoned operatives and winning allies in Congress. Vitriolic protests have taken a back seat to well-executed fundraising campaigns. Groups such as the Tea Party Express have raised tens of millions of dollars on the promise of derailing the health care law.
And, in many ways, Thursday’s ruling is exactly what they had been training for.
With its mission left intact by the ruling, the Tea Party Patriots, an umbrella organization that raised $12.2 million from May 2010 to May 2011, instantly launched an online petition slamming the court for ruling “against the American people” and fired off a fundraising email that a spokesman said brought in three times more money than a typical appeal.
“To those that are rejoicing that this monstrosity is partially upheld, I have got four little words for you: This is not over,” Keli Carender, national grass-roots coordinator for the Tea Party Patriots, told the crowd gathered outside the court. “If you thought that November 2010 was historic, you just wait for November 2012.”
Let Freedom Ring, a Philadelphia-based tea party group, green-lighted a plan to roll out television advertisements focused on the law in key battleground states. FreedomWorks, the conservative advocacy group chaired by former House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas), lambasted the court for “judicial activism” and pledged to “double down” its efforts to repeal the law.
And TheTeaParty.net prepared for an evening strategy session at the National Republican Club of Capitol Hill with GOP Reps. Steve King (Iowa), Jeff Landry (La.) and Marsha Blackburn (Tenn.) as well as other conservative lawmakers.
Indeed, the tea party’s relationship with Washington has come a long way since Congress passed the health care law in March 2010; FreedomWorks strategist Russ Walker told Roll Call earlier this month, “the tea party has become the Republican Party.” But the outpouring of surprise and anger prompted by the court’s decision is likely to intensify pressure on candidates and incumbents to cater to tea party voters.
“The grass roots is going to look at the GOP and say you are either going to repeal this or we will replace you,” said Ned Ryun, the founder and president of American Majority, a Texas-based tea-party-type nonprofit that deployed more than a dozen field staff in the Wisconsin recall election. “It highlights the importance of new leadership should the GOP take the Senate back. [Senate Minority Leader] Mitch McConnell ducked on this issue, saying that the Supreme Court would overturn it — what a horrible miscalculation.”
Within hours of the ruling, House lawmakers announced they would convene for a second, largely symbolic vote to repeal the law on July 11.
Early fundraising numbers suggest Democrats, moderate Republicans and the president have something to fear from the tea party groups.
The Tea Party Express has a war chest of at least $7.5 million raised through its political action committee and a super PAC dubbed Campaign to Defeat Barack Obama. That sum does not include contributions to its new political nonprofit, which allows anonymous donations that only need to be reported annually.
In the days leading up to the decision, tea party activists were certain the high court would rule in their favor.
“I’m going to gleefully spike the football and I don’t care what John Boehner says,” said Judson Phillips, the founder of Tea Party Nation, referencing the Speaker’s instructions to his caucus about not gloating over a victory.
Amy Kremer, chairwoman of the Tea Party Express, spent the last week on a bus tour with the conservative senior citizens advocacy group 60 Plus Association. The group held rallies in battleground states including Florida and Virginia before landing Thursday in Cincinnati.
“This is not about health care; this is about government overreach and government power. This is the biggest tax increase in U.S. history,” Kremer said. “The silver lining is that it has riled everybody up.”