By Alexandra Jaffe - 05/15/13 09:00 AM EDT
The Internal Revenue Service’s admission that it targeted conservative groups for extra scrutiny has handed the Tea Party a catalyzing issue activists say they’ll use to boost the movement’s influence in the 2014 elections.
Tea Party officials are hoping the scandal will not only galvanize current supporters, but also expand the movement’s appeal to centrists who might otherwise fail to the connection its principles — of limited government, low taxes and civil liberty — have to their lives.
One group — TeaParty.net — began fundraising Tuesday off the scandal.
“[President] Obama wants this IRS to enforce ObamaCare!” the group said in an email. “The same IRS that enforces Obama’s ‘Enemy’s List?’ ”
The tax agency is responsible for enforcing dozens of new ObamaCare rules, including the tax penalties on people who don’t purchase health insurance under the individual mandate.
The brewing controversy is “a perfect storm for conservatives,” said Matt Kibbe, head of the Tea Party group FreedomWorks.
Kibbe said the scandal resonates with voters because the IRS is almost universally unpopular. It also underscores the importance of civil liberties with respect to economic issues, he said.
“If there’s not an equal application of the law when it comes to filing for nonprofit status, what is it that gives us assurance that they won’t implement ObamaCare in a politically biased way?” Kibbe said.
GOP strategist Ford O’Connell said the IRS’s actions are a boon for a Tea Party movement whose influence waned in the 2012 elections.
“They’ve been given a real gift from heaven here,” he said.
“The Tea Party’s been pinning its hopes on ObamaCare to get back in the news because 2014 is a more affluent, white electorate,” for which the healthcare law will be a big issue, he said.
After its emergence as a political force in 2010, the Tea Party movement suffered setbacks in 2012.
A number of the movement’s most vocal figureheads, including Reps. Allen West (R-Fla.) and Joe Walsh (R-Ill.) were defeated in 2012 amid attacks that they were “too extreme” for Washington.
Only four of the 16 Senate candidates endorsed by the Tea Party Express won in 2012.
But the news that the IRS had singled out groups applying for nonprofit status with “Patriot” or “Tea Party” in their name for extra review has sparked bipartisan outrage.
Tom Zawistowski, head of the Portage County Tea Party in Ohio, said his group was among those targeted for extra questioning.
Zawistowski told The Hill he believes the scrutiny was an organized effort to undermine the Tea Party going into the 2012 elections.
“That’s just reality. Their goal was to make us less effective in ‘12 than we were in ‘10,” Zawistowski said.
“I definitely think it’s going to draw people to us because it disproves all the lies people told about us.”
Democratic leaders have worked in recent months to tar Republicans with the Tea Party label, particularly in the House. They believe suburban voters in swing districts will be turned off by Tea Party-affiliated lawmakers.
A Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll in January found support for the Tea Party at all all-time low, with only 23 percent of Americans viewing the movement positively.
However, the scandal could soften public perceptions.
“People are really outraged about [the IRS targeting], and they’re also saying, ‘This is why we’re so concerned about the government being so large. This is what we mean about the country needing to operate within the rule of law,’ ” Jenny Beth Martin, co-founder of Tea Party Patriots, said.
Brent Bozell, chairman of ForAmerica, said the IRS scandal could spark a backlash similar to the one that helped conservatives in the 2010 elections, when Republicans made historic gains in the House and Senate.
“I get the sense that the wheels are starting to come off this Obama train,” he said.
Bozell said he expects Republicans to make this an issue for Democratic incumbents, who will be “forced to take sides” on the IRS scandal.
David Bossie, president of Citizens United, said the IRS scandal is a “clear example of the Chicago-style, win-at-all-costs politics that Obama brought to Washington.”
Bossie said Obama set the tone for targeting political critics when he criticized the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, which barred the government from limiting corporate spending to influence election campaigns.
But while the Tea Party movement is armed with new ammunition, it risks missing the target unless activists develop a unified strategy.
O’Connell noted that the groups are also active in the gun control and immigration debates, and they could get sidetracked.
“They’re really stretched too thin on message, and a lot of these Tea Party groups are really understaffed,” he said.
O’Connell said the Tea Party should keep its focus on the IRS and ObamaCare implementation.
“It requires a macro view of the landscape. But since voters have a short attention span, that is what their messaging strategy should build towards.”