WASHINGTON — The email landed in House Republican inboxes at 5:13 p.m. Tuesday with the thunder of all caps: "KEY VOTE: 'NO' ON HOUSE SPENDING AND DEBT DEAL."
Within a half hour, the deal had collapsed, extending the government shutdown another day. There were multiple factors, all of which House Speaker John Boehner would rather forget. But the email — and the threat it carried — played a decided role.
It is the work of Heritage Action, which has gained power in recent years, pushing Republicans toward a harder brand of conservatism. Though the group has gotten little notice outside Washington, Heritage Action, and a handful of organizations like it, engineered the fight over Obamacare that led to the 16-day shutdown.
The groups are taking on Washington's power structure, undercutting legislative leaders and traditional political parties, and fueling the warfare starkly on display.
The GOP limped home last week divided internally and damaged in public standing, but Heritage Action sees an upside.
"For the first time in a long time, a lot of people can look at House Republicans and say they stood for something, they did something that was politically risky," said CEO Mike Needham. "It didn't work. It's an argument to go win the Senate."
Some Republican lawmakers are increasingly critical of the outside groups and their tactics, which include setting up challenges to incumbents seen as too willing to compromise. On Thursday, three groups — the Club for Growth, Senate Conservatives Fund and the Madison Project — backed a tea party challenger to Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., who voted for the deal to end the budget stalemate. On Friday, Senate Conservatives Fund endorsed a tea party rival to Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.
"Nobody will ever be conservative enough. Nobody will ever have the best voting record," complained Rep. Dennis Ross, R-Lakeland, who felt the pressure of Heritage Action this summer when the group urged voters to press him to join an effort to defund the health care law.
Heritage Action targeted 100 other Republicans in a $550,000 online ad campaign, demanding lawmakers take a stand on Obamacare when they returned to Washington. On Sept. 20, the House voted on a plan to fund the government but not Obamacare, setting up the shutdown. The tactic was fatally flawed because Democrats control the Senate and the White House, but Republicans went ahead.
"I wish they would look at the greater good. Our enemy is not the conservatives," said Ross, who would have supported the deal hatched Tuesday. (He voted against the final deal, which also carried the Heritage "vote no" warning. Eighty-seven Republicans — six from Florida — voted with Democrats to pass the bill.)
The post-vote grousing about outside groups — and it was easy to uncover — only confirmed their rising influence.
"They said they would come to D.C. and do everything they could to stop Obamacare, and we held them to that standard," said Adam Brandon, executive vice president of FreedomWorks, another prominent conservative group, which has a Facebook following of 4.3 million people.
Breaking the party, he said, only makes it stronger: "How do you change something if it's not messy?"
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Heritage Action formed in 2010 after the landmark Citizens United Supreme Court decision allowing groups to raise unlimited sums of corporate money. The conservative Koch brothers recently gave the group $500,000 but the law does not require disclosure of donors.
The group is the lobbying arm of the venerable Heritage Foundation. The think tank is now run by former Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina, known for his hard-core politics and knack for backing underdog candidates. While all of Washington looked to Charlie Crist as Florida's next Republican senator, DeMint championed Marco Rubio. He also backed another long shot who arrived in Washington with anti-establishment fists flying, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who was the face of the defund effort. Cruz now employs several former DeMint staffers.
Needham, 31 and a native New Yorker, co-wrote the business plan for Heritage Action while at Stanford business school. The idea was to translate the foundation's research and donor base into grass roots political power. Heritage Action has mobilized the network of activists to counter traditional lobbyists. The group has worked against budget spending, immigration reform and gun control. Earlier this year, it looked as though universal background checks had a chance of passing but Heritage Action mounted a fierce public campaign, and the bipartisan effort collapsed.
"If you look at the music industry in 1989, 80 percent of it was controlled by five big record labels," Needham said. "Peer-to-peer file sharing came along and now the top five record labels have 23 percent of the market. There's been a diffusion of influence. That's what's going on in Washington.
"It's very easy in an Internet age to get facts and information out to millions of people so they actually feel capable and informed enough to ask tough questions of their members of Congress. I think many people in Washington prefer the old world where the two political parties basically have a monopoly on the dispersion of ideas. We're not going back to it."
Heritage Action creates scorecards of key legislative votes. The threat to incumbents is clear: Stray too far and you'll invite a primary challenge. The group holds weekly conference calls with 5,600 "Sentinels," tea party leaders and other activists across the country, to discuss issues, messaging and strategy.
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Obamacare has been a Republican target since it became law without a single GOP vote in 2010. Since then, House Republicans have taken more than 40 votes to defund, delay or hobble key provisions. But they have been symbolic gestures to satisfy a restless conservative base. This summer Heritage Action, FreedomWorks and other groups wanted more meaningful action and saw the Oct. 1 deadline to pass a new short-term budget as the vehicle, a strategy establishment Republicans said was idiotic because it would never get the required Democratic approval.
Private meetings were held with Sens. Cruz, Rubio and Mike Lee of Utah, who circulated a letter to his colleagues urging them to join up. In the House, freshman Rep. Mark Meadows of North Carolina took the lead. It went slow at first, but organizers knew they could use the summer recess to cajole reluctant Republicans, sending activists to their offices and town halls, making thousands of phone calls and sending emails.
Heritage Action held a series of town halls across the country, including one in Tampa on Aug. 21, to foment support among activists and press lawmakers. Rubio embarked on his own mini-tour of Florida to rail against the law. FreedomWorks dispatched supporters to town halls and placed more than 150,000 phone calls to lawmakers' offices. Senate Conservatives Fund, a political action committee that DeMint started, ran a TV ad against McConnell saying he "refuses to lead on defunding Obamacare."
The groups got the vote but also the first government shutdown in 17 years. After 16 days, much of it marked by Republican infighting over the defund strategy, the deal did not scratch Obamacare. The GOP brand took a deep hit in the polls.
A number of lawmakers vented at the role the outside groups played. Sen. Orrin Hatch, the Utah Republican who faced a challenge from his right in 2012, said on MSNBC, "Heritage used to be the conservative organization helping Republicans. There's a real question on the minds of many Republicans now … is Heritage going to go so political that it really doesn't amount to anything anymore?"
Sitting in his office a short walk from the Capitol, Needham conceded the fight to kill Obamacare is more difficult now but still claimed victory. "In terms of showing people their involvement in democracy matters, this was a huge success."
His group says it will continue to fight the law and will re-engage if immigration reform gets unlikely life in the House. It will also oppose reauthorization of the Export-Import Bank, which Needham says is the epitome of "corporate cronyism."
Contact Alex Leary at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @learyreports.