TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) – If you thought Tea Party activists were mad before, you ain’t seen nothing yet.Instead of being discouraged by passage of health care reform, tea party activists across the country say the defeat is a rallying cry that makes them more focused than ever on voting out any lawmaker who supported the measure.
“We’re not going to stop. Obviously, the whole tea party movement started because we’re about smaller government and less spending and less taxes. There is absolutely no way we can pay for this,” said Denise Cattoni, state coordinator for Illinois Tea Party, an umbrella group for about 50 groups from around Illinois.
Cattoni says the health care defeat doesn’t deflate tea party activists. “We couldn’t stop it because of the shenanigans that went on in Washington,” Cattoni said. “People are definitely more driven today than they were yesterday without a doubt.”
A group of mostly Republican attorneys general were girding for a legal fight, filing a lawsuit Tuesday in federal court in Florida within moments of the landmark health care reforms being signed into law by President Barack Obama.
Within hours of its passage, conservative commentators Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh—darlings of the tea party movement—were venting their anger, vowing a bloodbath at the polls on Election Day.
“We need to defeat these bastards. We need to wipe them out,” Limbaugh said. “We need to chase them out of town. But we need to do more than that. We need to elect conservatives. If there are Republican primaries, elect conservatives and then defeat the Democrats—every last one of them—and then we start the repeal process.”
Tea party activists said they do not see passage of the reforms that usher in near-universal medical coverage as the end of the debate. Instead, they’re looking to push for its repeal on several fronts: in the courts and during this year’s elections.
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.
“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 than 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 the policies under the Obama administration and the Democratic-controlled Congress 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.
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.
Associated Press writers Deanna Bellandi in Chicago, Steve LeBlanc in Boston, Scott Bauer in Madison, Wis., Phillip Rawls in Montgomery, Ala., and Michael Blood in Los Angeles, contributed to this report.
(This version CORRECTS Corrects that lawsuit filed by mostly GOP AGs sted all GOP AGs.)