Their congressional colleagues are sniping at them and Donald Trump is scolding them on Twitter, but members of the deeply conservative House Freedom Caucus are winning loud and unwavering support from grassroots activists at home for their refusal to support of the president’s health care bill.
The Trump-backed legislation to repeal and replace former President Barack Obama’s health care law failed to even come to a vote on Friday, due in part to staunch opposition from members of the Freedom Caucus. And by Monday, activists from across the country were already mobilizing to offer cover to the conservatives who opposed the measure, even as those members of Congress faced sharp criticism from other lawmakers in their party.
“It doesn’t matter what the talking heads say about what the Freedom Caucus did,” said JoAnn Fleming, the executive director of Grassroots America and a veteran tea party leader in Texas. “We’re smart enough to figure it out. Quite frankly, even President Trump doesn’t tell us how to size up our own congressmen.”
It’s a notable dynamic given that many conservatives who opposed the Republican healthcare overhaul plan come from districts Trump won handily.
In largely Trump-friendly western North Carolina, for example, conservative activists were slated to hold a thank you rally for Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), the chairman of the House Freedom Caucus, on Monday. They were aided by the national conservative organization FreedomWorks, which sponsored the event, while Heritage Action, another powerful national group that opposed the bill, provided signs.
“It’s true the president is very strong in these districts, but Mark Meadows knows the relationship he has” with the activists there, said FreedomWorks President Adam Brandon.
FreedomWorks, which was already planning events for its “month of action,” is now also turning to hosting thank you rallies for conservative members of Congress who helped block the bill, Brandon told McClatchy.
“They’re human,” he said of the House Freedom Caucus members. “Whenever you’re part of a club like Congress…when you don’t go along, it gets to be a very lonely club. We want them to understand, when they go home, these are their friends, neighbors, colleagues, these people they’ve asked for votes, when they see them cheering them, welcoming them back into the room, saying ‘we know it’s tough up there, but we’ve got your back and we love you,’ that does a lot.”
Small but symbolic gestures of support are cropping up for the Freedom Caucus in conservative corners nationwide.
One tea party group in Texas even changed the name of its Facebook group over the weekend from the “South Texas TEA Party Network” to the “South Texas FREEDOM Network” in an apparent show of solidarity with the Freedom Caucus.
“The House Freedom Caucus just proved the tea party/freedom/constitution movement is not dead,” reads the description of the Facebook group, which has around 600 members. “Let's roll!”
The efforts come as Trump himself has gone on the attack against the Freedom Caucus.
“Democrats are smiling in D.C. that the Freedom Caucus, with the help of Club For Growth and Heritage, have saved Planned Parenthood & Ocare!” he tweeted Sunday morning. Meanwhile, Rep. Ted Poe (R-Texas), left the Freedom Caucus following the health care vote drama, and the group was the subject of ire from members of Congress who saw the bill as the best chance to move repeal through the Senate.
Conservative activists and influential outside groups strongly opposed the health care measure, which they felt did not go far enough in repealing the Affordable Care Act. And many are also displeased with Trump’s efforts to pressure Freedom Caucus members to get on board. Last week, Trump threatened that he would go after Meadows if the North Carolinian opposed the bill.
“We don’t look to anybody in Washington to tell us how to vote for a congressman or not,” said Fleming, whose congressman, Rep. Louie Gohmert, is a member of the Freedom Caucus and was opposed to the health care proposal. “I may not always agree with him on everything, but I agree with the Freedom Caucus on what they did with this.”
Ann Ubelis, a radio host and a leader of the Beaufort, S.C. Tea Party, went further in criticizing Trump for pressuring conservatives to get on board. Rep. Mark Sanford (R-S.C.), who has a district office in Beaufort, was also opposed to the bill.
“I do not appreciate him trying to ram it down our throats instead of taking the time to craft a good bill,” she said of the approach pushed, in her view, by both Trump and Speaker Paul Ryan. “It was, ‘you have to do it here, now.’ When you do that you sound exactly like Nancy Pelosi.”
But for all of the finger-pointing, the reality is that Obamacare—the law Republicans have been promising to repeal for years—still remains intact even though Republicans control all of the levers of power in Washington.
“Everybody I talked to here was hoping we could get some type of bill passed by the House,” said Kelly Arnold, the chairman of the Kansas Republican Party. “A lot of people were disappointed when [the bill] was pulled because we don’t have a starting point anymore.”
He expressed optimism that the House would move on health care legislation again before the 2018 midterms, though Trump has made it clear that he wants to move on for now.
“We’re going to be living with Obamacare for the foreseeable future,” Ryan said Friday.
“Republicans for the last seven years have promised to repeal Obamacare, and we really don’t have an excuse in the House for why this failed,” said a Republican strategist planning to work on 2018 midterm races. “We have majorities in the House, in the Senate. Obamacare should be repealed by now.”
The source added, “It will be an argument used against all Republicans: that the party in general couldn’t deliver.”
Bud Kennedy of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram contributed to this report.