Frustrated GOP activists threaten 2018 consequences after Obamacare fail

Sen. John McCain, R-Az., is pursued by reporters after casting a 'no' vote on a a measure to repeal parts of former President Barack Obama's health care law, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Friday, July 28, 2017. Conservative activists are frustrated with Republican inability to repeal the law.
Sen. John McCain, R-Az., is pursued by reporters after casting a 'no' vote on a a measure to repeal parts of former President Barack Obama's health care law, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Friday, July 28, 2017. Conservative activists are frustrated with Republican inability to repeal the law. AP

President Donald Trump tried to blame the implosion of Obamacare repeal on “3 Republicans and 48 Democrats” who “let the American people down.”

But the conservative activist base isn’t drawing any such distinctions.

“Senate Republicans and Republicans in Congress in general overwhelmingly support repeal of Obamacare, there’s a handful of senators who are now on record not being for that, but they’re all going to suffer the consequences of this failure,” said Brendan Steinhauser, a Texas-based conservative operative with extensive grassroots experience. “Voters are going to hold all of Congress responsible, they’re going to hold the Republican Party responsible, for not getting it done.”

The Republican-controlled Senate’s middle-of-the-night effort to advance Obamacare repeal failed thanks to GOP Sens. John McCain, Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski. None of those senators face re-election anytime soon, depriving angry conservatives of a path to direct political retribution, while plenty of Republicans would just as soon pivot to tax reform.

But interviews with a half-dozen operatives and officials who operate in the grassroots space across the country reveal serious concerns about 2018 enthusiasm across the board if the party can’t find a way to deliver on key campaign promises, including making another run at Obamacare repeal.

“Republicans are absolutely in trouble in 2018, just because of their absolute dysfunction at the moment,” said Andrew Roth, vice president for government affairs at the deeply conservative group Club for Growth, which was advocating full repeal of the health care law. “Now, they can repair that, but only if they get their act together and pass pro-growth tax reform and take another stab at…Obamacare. They have the time to do it, they just need to do it.”

For the last seven years, the pledge to repeal President Barack Obama’s signature health care law has been at the core of Republican campaign messaging, helping the party to win back the House, then the Senate and, in part, the White House. Despite a tweet to the contrary on Friday, Trump himself routinely promised to oversee repeal of the law “immediately.”

The conservative base is still overwhelmingly supportive of the president, but many activists and conservative leaders have no problem taking issue with Congress over failing to deliver on Obamacare repeal so far.

“The fact that we’re almost back to ground zero on repeal and replace is disheartening because we have a Republican president, a Republican House, a Republican Senate,” said former Arizona GOP Chairman Robert Graham, a Trump ally who is considering primarying Sen. Jeff Flake. “It shouldn’t be like this.”

Flake did vote for the latest effort to roll back the Affordable Care Act—but Graham said that he was disappointed in the congressional “body as a whole,” and added that the late-night vote this week has made him think more seriously about a challenge, though no decisions have been made.

“When you see a great vision being frustrated by a few people, that’s when you start to feel the power of duty,” Graham said as he praised Trump, going on to add, “When you see these obstacles constraining the vision, it’s tough. It makes you more motivated to consider it. It’s an option.”

In Nevada, Republican Danny Tarkanian—a frequent candidate who has been considering a primary challenge to Sen. Dean Heller, or a congressional run—said the health care vote didn’t affect his decision-making. But, he warned, the collapse of the repeal effort could have dire consequences with the base.

“They voted in a Republican-controlled Congress, Senate and president for the Republican side and they expect the principles that these people campaigned on to get passed,” Tarkanian said. “If they don’t get passed, you’re going to get people who are frustrated don’t show up at the polls.”

But, he stressed, there is still time for Republicans to land other victories, including on tax reform.

And indeed, some national conservative groups were already talking up that issue the morning after the health care bill fell apart.

“We believe the effort to fix health care is a long-term effort, and while this is an epic fail by congressional Republicans which will further erode their standing with the American people, we’ve got to move on to tax reform,” said Tim Phillips, the president of the Koch-backed influential conservative organization Americans for Prosperity. “It’s a crucial issue if we’re going to get the economy going again, and at some point, go back to health care.”

Asked about the political consequences for Republican lawmakers who did not get on board, or were perceived to not do enough, to get Obamacare repeal over the finish line, he replied, “Now is not the time to talk about future consequences. It’s time to move on to the next issue, which is tax reform.”

But Brett Barker, the chairman of Iowa’s Story County GOP, said that Republican voters may not have moved on come 2018.

“You might see some lack of excitement when it comes to election time, voters feel, ‘Hey, I worked really hard to send these guys there, they’re not getting anything done, why should I knock doors? Why should I make phone calls?’” he said. “That would be one of my biggest concerns.”

Katie Glueck: 202-383-6078, @katieglueck