WASHINGTON — "Kill Obamacare" was a rallying cry that drew thousands of small-government Americans to the fledgling "tea party" movement last year. As the president's plan now becomes law, tea party activists say they don't intend to lose any momentum.
Instead, they see this defeat as triggering a broader call to action. They're moving the health care fight to individual states, urging them to try to opt out of the overhaul or challenge its provisions in court. They're also expanding campaigns against incumbent lawmakers who face November elections across the country.
"Health care is just the tip of the spear," said Mark Skoda of the Memphis Tea Party. He helped organize a recent "Take the Town Halls to Washington" effort, in which activists tried to kill the overhaul or at least delay the voting until after Congress' spring recess.
Tea partiers are planning April 15 tax protests — a given, considering that their movement began in opposition to taxes and President Barack Obama's economic policies.
They also anticipate protests in coming months against other legislation favored by Obama and Democratic congressional leaders that the activists consider an affront to their concept of the proper role of government, from cap-and-trade environmental policy to any immigration bill that offers amnesty or relaxes penalties for illegal immigrants.
Eric Odom, the chairman of Liberty First PAC, a tea party-driven political action committee, said Sunday's health care vote in the House of Representatives "actually puts us in a better position."
Odom said his group had been targeting incumbents in 21 states, but after Sunday's vote, was expanding its list. "Now folks are even more upset with those incumbents," he explained.
"Most of the tea party activists see this government moving to oppose their way of life," Odom said. "So it's an insult to see this sort of thing. It's almost like a declaration of war to many people. They've treated it as such. I think many more people are going to see it as the government's no longer in their hands. They're seeing it as a complete loss of control over government."
New targets will include Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich., an abortion opponent who gave crucial late backing to the overhaul once Obama promised an executive order to ease Stupak's concerns.
Odom moved from Chicago to Nevada to focus on the group's biggest campaign target, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. He's developing an infrastructure in 17 Nevada counties. As a model, he said, he's looking to how Obama's presidential campaign organized grass-roots activists in Nevada and Iowa.
Republican strategist Todd Harris said that if the tea party movement hadn't already existed, "the passage of health care would have created it."
Tea party activists undercut one of his clients, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, who recently lost a bid to unseat Texas Gov. Rick Perry. Tea party activists are boosting another Harris client, however, former Florida House Speaker Marco Rubio, in his GOP primary contest for Florida's open U.S. Senate race.
"The tea party movement is made up of people who believe Washington has stopped listening to the average person," Harris said Monday, "and to them and millions of others, passage of health care has just proved their point. This bill is about to become the main symbol for a government that doesn't listen and just doesn't get it."
It remains to be seen how powerful a force tea party activists will be in November.
Charges that some activists had yelled racial or anti-gay slurs at lawmakers who supported the overhaul threaten to marginalize the movement's image if such accusations persist. Organizers say that they and the vast majority of their activists don't condone such tactics.
While their small-government preference makes them more often opposed to Democrats, many also resist aligning with Republicans. The movement is divided internally over how much to organize or centralize its efforts. Independent tea party groups of various sizes exist all over the country, with several regional and national coalitions emerging, but no one leadership structure.
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