TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — Tea party activists aren’t just angry that Democrats passed a major health care overhaul, they are out for revenge.
They do not see passage of the landmark reforms that usher in near-universal medical coverage as the end of the debate. Tea partiers instead vow to support attorneys general who plan a lawsuit seeking to declare the law unconstitutional. They are demanding the bill be repealed or not funded and want to kick out of office all supporters of the measure.
So far, the nascent movement has almost reveled in its rebellious and grass roots nature and has avoided becoming as much a part of the establishment as the Republican and Democratic parties. But some tea party organizers see the health care debate as a galvanizing force that could stir its followers to greater action and something to rally around with midterm elections this year.
In states across the country, tea party groups planned protests and vowed to target any congressional member who supported the measure passed Sunday night.
“There’s going to be a whole, all-out effort for an Election Day onslaught,” said Michael Caputo, a public relations consultant who works with tea party activists on the national level, as well as in Florida and New York. “The health care process has been an incendiary issue for the tea party organizations since Day 1. Losing that vote is going to inflame them more.”
The number of tea party groups has been growing for a little more then a year. Many in the movement were previously not politically active and have a strong independent streak, making organization sometimes difficult.
Most share a common belief that government spending and influence should be limited and they’re angry about policies President Barack Obama and the Democratic-controlled Congress are implementing, including last year’s $787 billion federal stimulus package and health care.
In a conference call with tea party activists Monday night, Eric Odom of the Patriot Caucus mapped ambitious plans to set up state chapters, organize voters online and raise money to oust incumbents who supported the health care overhaul.
He predicted the vote would increase support for the movement across the country.
The government “has declared war on our way of life,” Odom from Nevada told listeners.
“It’s now time to boot them from office,” said Odom, who chairs the Liberty First PAC, a fundraising arm of the group. “We absolutely must have your help.”
In Florida, about 85 tea party groups encompass about 100,000 people, according to Everett Wilkinson, a leader in the state’s movement. A small rally is being planned in Boca Raton on Tuesday with more likely the rest of the week in response to the vote, he said.
There are similar reactions elsewhere.
“We will be more determined than ever to see that this country is governed the way the constitution intended,” said Brenda Bowen, a tea party organizer in Greenville, Ala. “We are all getting our second wind. When we do, you’d better watch out.”
Even though they didn’t stop the bill, Tim Dake, organizer of the Milwaukee-area group GrandSons of Liberty, said he and others intend to push for a state constitutional amendment that would prohibit forcing people to buy health insurance. The amendment has been introduced by Republicans in the Democratic-controlled Wisconsin Legislature, but there are no plans to hold a hearing on it.
The Republican-controlled Legislature is pushing a similar measure in Florida. If lawmakers put it on the ballot, at least 60 percent of voters would have to approve it.
Christen Varley, head of the Greater Boston Tea Party Organizers, said the House health vote was both “heartbreaking” and a wake-up call.
“I think we all went to bed a little dejected last night, but from the communication I received this morning, people are energized,” said Varley. Sarah Palin is scheduled to headline a tea party rally on historic Boston Common on April 14.
Massachusetts already has a form of universal health care, yet the state made passage of the bill more difficult when voters elected Republican Scott Brown to replace the late Sen. Ted Kennedy — who spent nearly his entire career pushing for health care for all. Brown’s election took away Democrats’ filibuster-proof majority in the Senate.
“It’s just a big punch in the gut. It really is to a lot of people,” said Lawson, who wondered whether people new to the movement will be discouraged by the vote and not bother to come. Others, he’s sure, will just be more fired up.
“For some people it will just be more raw meat, more raw meat out the back door to get people to come,” he said. “The hardcore people will be there. They’ll be angrier than ever.”
Whether or not tea partiers will be able to turn anger into organization may vary from state to state.
“People in the Tea Party movement are fiercely independent. They don’t like being told what to do. It’s like herding cats,” said Chad Capps, strategy coordinator for a Huntsville, Ala., group.
While tea party activists have made themselves heard, University of North Florida political science professor Matthew Corrigan said the movement alone won’t be enough to oust incumbents.
“Do they have energy? Yes. Have they been getting into the media? Yes, but they still haven’t sold me on the fact that they can swing elections,” Corrigan said. He added, however, that tea party activists could be more influential if they work with Republicans against Democrats.
And for Wilkinson, it doesn’t just stop at voting out the lawmakers who supported the measure.
“When they leave office, we’re going to make sure the private sector is aware of who they are and we’ll make it virtually impossible for them to have a job even after they leave office,” Wilkinson said. “Wherever they are, we will be there. We are not stopping. We’re not going away. This is just the beginning.”