ObamaCare Wars Tearing At GOP Seams This Summer

The late-summer burst of organized conservative opposition to Republican incumbents is the sort of red-on-red conflict that bodes poorly for the fall, when Republican leaders hope to form a united front on issues as varied as funding the government, dealing with immigration reform and extending the debt ceiling.

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Jessica Rinaldi / Reuters

The defund ObamaCare effort may be fading in Washington, but for many GOP members of the House and Senate vacationing in their home districts, there has been no break from the constant pressure from outside groups.

The late-summer burst of organized conservative opposition to Republican incumbents is the sort of red-on-red conflict that bodes poorly for the fall, when Republican leaders hope to form a united front on issues as varied as funding the government, dealing with immigration reform and extending the debt ceiling.

Heritage Action for America announced a $550,000 online ad campaign Monday, targeting 100 House Republicans, including Speaker of the House John Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor, who have not signed onto a letter urging the GOP to tie defunding language to any vote on funding the government this fall. (Here’s a demo of what the ads look like.) The author of the letter, North Carolina Rep. Mark Meadows, has so far garnered 80 signatures from his Republican colleagues in the House, according to his office.

Meanwhile, another group, the Senate Conservatives Fund, has spent $40,200 on conservative talk radio station ads attacking Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) for labeling the efforts to tie ObamaCare defunding to a government shutdown the “dumbest idea I’ve ever heard.” The same group has spent another $37,500 criticizing Sen. Lindsey Graham since he “refuses to do what it takes to stop funding for this liberal train wreck.” Executive Director Matt Hoskins tells TIME the group plans to buy six more ads over the next two weeks. Also this week, two other outside organizations, Tea Party Patriots and ForAmerica announced that they would target seven Republican senators in online ads for not supporting the effort as a part of their six-figure, “You Fund It, You Own It” campaign.

FreedomWorks has focused its resources on organizing town halls to change the minds of Republican leaders—even if they don’t want to show up. On August 17 a cardboard cutout of Texas Sen. John Cornyn hosted over 500 people in a Dallas hotel. The organization will hold a “Cardboard Lindsey” Graham event on August 27, and will host other events pressuring Sens. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), and Burr through September.

“The point of those town halls is to have that serious, open and honest conversation about policy and about defunding ObamaCare,” says Jackie Bodnar, the communications director for FreedomWorks. “The outrage is almost two-fold at this point. It’s a policy battle, but its also taking offenses to this reluctance of people in Washington to meet with the constituents.”

Proponents of the defund movement hope their efforts will build political momentum to force Obama to undo parts of his signature accomplishment. But in Washington, the Republican establishment is not having any of it. Conservative columnist Ramesh Ponnuru, senior editor of the National Review, recently penned an article called “Drop the Disastrous Plan to Defund ObamaCare.” Columnist George Will and former Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney have also disagreed with the anti-ObamaCare tactics. The National Journal polled 91 top Republican strategists, and 63% of them said the effort to link defunding the bill with this fall’s budget fight was “somewhat” or “very” disadvantageous. Charles Krauthammer in the Washington Post put in succinctly: “This is nuts.”

If the current defund movement is defeated, Tea Party leaders will have their sights set on 2014, when they threaten to toss out moderate Republicans with primary challenges from the right. “I think the silver lining is that we drew a line in the sand on which members of Congress, both Republican and Democrat, are seriously committed to dismantling the law,” says FreedomWorks’ Bodnar. “Between the battle to defund ObamaCare, the IRS scandal and the NSA scandal, there is a perfect storm going into 2014 for a referendum on unchecked discretionary power and big government gone wild.”