Tea Party looks to ObamaCare for new life in 2014 election cycle

The Tea Party movement is preparing to use ObamaCare's rollout to catapult itself back into political power.


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• The Hill's Elise Viebeck discusses Tea Party efforts to capitalize on ObamaCare


Tea Party leaders have been watching closely as President Obama and other prominent Democrats predict glitches in the law's implementation. Conservative activists see these concessions as a major boon for Tea Party candidates in 2014 as Republicans seek to hold the House and take the Senate.

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"Implementation has already shown itself to be a series of political time bombs," said Matt Kibbe, president and CEO of FreedomWorks. "The only way you fix policy is through political accountability. Those that ignore those arguments need to pay a price."

The enactment of healthcare reform's major provisions on Jan. 1, 2014 couldn't come at a better time for conservative activists. On that date, the law's state insurance exchanges will begin offering coverage, the Medicaid expansion will take effect and the bill's consumer protections will become active.

All three developments pose major challenges to the Obama administration, and they leave nine months for the Tea Party to hammer Democrats over any bumps in the road. In interviews with The Hill, movement leaders described plans to launch aggressive event and messaging schedules centered around ObamaCare.

The law's implementation is "reinvigorating the movement," said Jenny Beth Martin, national coordinator of the Tea Party Patriots. "We're doing street rallies and protests over the next month to three months, initially. We're working to recruit candidates that can talk about this."

Kibbe said his group would seize on every implementation deadline to argue that the law will hurt patients, the economy and the deficit.

"The hypothetical arguments against ObamaCare are very real," Kibbe said. "ObamaCare is a much realer, more palpable threat now that it's being implemented."

The 2014 timetable comes as the Tea Party faces serious doubts about its viability as a political force.

The movement sprang to action in 2009 and gained major influence in 2010 by putting scores of candidates in office around the country. Now, tales of infighting, an association with political gridlock and a lackluster 2012 election cycle have hurt the Tea Party's reputation.

"The Tea Party is certainly dying as a movement," said Ford O'Connell, a GOP strategist. "They definitely need some new life breathed into them, and [implementation] is the issue to do that. They need to make it work. If they can't hack it in 2014, they're done."

Conservative activists blamed the 2012 losses on Mitt Romney and his responsibility for ObamaCare's predecessor in Massachusetts. They said that getting back to the movement's bread and butter issue without Romney at the party's helm could give them another cycle like 2010.

"Romney made a mistake not talking about it," said Sal Russo, co-founder of the Tea Party Express. "In 2014, it's going to be a big, big issue again."

"We don't have that drag from the top of the ticket in 2014," Kibbe said. "That drag was the defining difference between 2010 and 2012."

ObamaCare's implementation seized headlines last month when Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.), an architect of the law, predicted it would be a "train wreck" unless the public comes to understand it better.

"I just see a huge train wreck coming down," Baucus told Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius in a hearing. "I'm very concerned that not enough is being done so far — very concerned."

The phrase "train wreck" has since become a mainstay in Republican attacks on Obama, Democrats and healthcare reform itself.

Obama sought to quell fears in a press conference Tuesday, saying that most Americans have already seen ObamaCare's effects.

"Even if we do everything perfectly, there will still be glitches and bumps," he admitted. "That's pretty much true of every government program that's ever been set up."

But some Democrats are increasingly worried that mistakes in implementation, coupled with the public's ignorance about the law, will make them vulnerable in November of 2014. And they say the White House is not doing enough to make sure the public understands how it will benefit.

A poll this week found that four in 10 people aren't aware that the Affordable Care Act is still on the books. Other surveys have founds that false claims about "death panels" and benefits for undocumented workers still hold sway.

O'Connell said these misunderstandings will be profitable for conservatives, particularly given the emotional nature of debates about healthcare.

"Sometimes winning elections isn't about the moveable middle but about targeting the easily misled," he said. "What people don't know is a very powerful campaign tool."

Democrats expressed their own concerns about the public's misunderstanding of the landmark reform law, which will provide insurance or tax credits to buy insurance to millions of people. Many dismissed the idea that a resurgent Tea Party could shift the balance of power in Congress.

"We can only hope national Republicans continue taking pages out of their 2012 playbook as they foolishly yearn for 2010 and cement their status as the minority party," said Justin Barasky, spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. "Despite hundreds of millions of dollars in ObamaCare attack ads from national Republicans and their special interest allies, every single incumbent Democrat who was up in 2012 won reelection."

Democratic strategist Doug Thornell pointed to polls that show the public trusts Democrats over Republicans when it comes to healthcare.

"The potency of [GOP] attacks might be a little overstated," he said. "Democrats are used to dealing with the issue. This is not some new revelation that Republicans are going to go after Dems on ObamaCare."

He added that in 2012, "we won."

"It should be confidence builder right now for Democrats who might be a bit worried," Thornell said.