FLETCHER, N.C. (AP) — Tea Party activists, once unquestioned as a benefit to the Republican Party for supplying it with votes and energy, are now criticizing GOP leaders at seemingly every turn.
They're demanding that Congress use upcoming budget votes to deny money for implementing President Barack Obama's 2010 health care law, even amid warnings that the strategy could lead to a government shutdown. They're upset that Republicans didn't block a Senate-passed immigration bill. And many are outspoken opponents of any U.S. involvement in Syria's civil war.
A recent Pew Research Center survey found that more than 7 in 10 self-identified "Tea Party Republicans" disapprove of the job performance of GOP congressional leaders. Many of the major tea party groups are backing 2014 primary challengers against Republicans the activists deem too moderate, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky conservative who once declared it his job to make Obama a one-term president.
That leaves some Republicans quietly worried that an intraparty tussle could yield a repeat of 2012, when conservative candidates lost winnable Senate races and GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney struggled through the primary and general election campaigns to win over conservatives while still appealing to moderate swing voters.
The health care debate puts the GOP in its tightest spot, with the wary Republicans recalling the 1995-96 shutdowns under President Bill Clinton, who persuaded many voters to blame Republicans and House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a Georgia Republican, for that budget impasse.
McConnell, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and other GOP congressional leaders endorse the idea to "defund Obamacare," but some of them have also tried to convince their core supporters that it won't happen: Democrats still run the Senate, and Obama won't gut his signature domestic achievement. If Congress doesn't agree on appropriations at all, then many core government functions, including some military operations and the processing of Medicare claims and Social Security applications, would stop.
But that doesn't satisfy the Tea Party faithful, who say too many Republicans have welcomed their support in elections only to ignore their concerns in office.
Amy Kremer, the leader of the California-based Tea Party Express, spent much of the congressional summer break on a national tour intended to pressure Republicans into backing the defunding movement.
"My message to Speaker Boehner and (House Majority Leader) Eric Cantor and Senator McConnell is simple: If you're not willing to fight for this, what are you willing to fight for?" she said at a recent stop in western North Carolina.
Her group has helped elected conservative favorites like Sens. Rand Paul of Kentucky, Marco Rubio of Florida and Ted Cruz of Texas, who have driven the campaign for cutting off money for Obama's law.
After a similar event in Atlanta, Brent Bozell of the Virginia-based ForAmerica, said: "I'd like them to stop thinking about their own re-elections for five minutes. Someone should remind House Republicans that they have the majority for a reason. They should use it."
Cantor this week floated the idea of passing a temporary spending bill tied to a provision that would derail the health care law. But, in an unusual twist, the plan would allow Senate Democrats to separate the "end Obamacare" provision and forward the appropriations to the president. Conservatives quickly dismissed that strategy.
Americans for Limited Government President Nathan Mehrens called it a "gimmick" and "one of the most cynical political shell games seen ... in years."
The political arm of the Heritage Foundation, now run by former Republican Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina, has devoted more than $500,000 to an ad campaign against several Republican members who've resisted the push.
North Carolina Rep. Renee Ellmers, one of the Republicans targeted by the campaign, retorted on social media. "Why is @Heritage Action spending $550K to attack conservatives but not @KayHagan who was a deciding vote on #Obamacare?" she said via Twitter, referring to North Carolina's Democratic senator, who is running for re-election next year.
At one stop in the state, Kremer called out Ellmers. "I haven't given up on the congresswoman," she said.
Another conservative group, FreedomWorks, has sponsored dozens of town hall meetings featuring cardboard cutouts of House members and senators who declined invitations to attend the "Defund Obamacare" sessions. Several groups joined forces for a defunding rally at Boehner's Ohio district headquarters. The conservative anti-tax group Club for Growth has already endorsed a handful of primary challengers, including against Boehner allies.
A political action committee called the Senate Conservatives Fund spent $340,000 on an ad criticizing McConnell. It's slated to run on cable and networks in Kentucky until Sept. 17.
"Mitch McConnell is the key to stopping Obamacare," an off-camera announcer states. "Republicans in the Senate have the power to defeat funding for Obamacare, but they won't use it if their leader tells them to surrender." McConnell, the announcer continues, "wants Kentucky voters to re-elect him because he's the Republican leader, but what good is that title if he won't use it to help Kentucky families?"
McConnell spokesman Don Stewart said the senator stands by his position. "He's been very vocal back home over the need to repeal, dismantle, defund the law — you name it, he's for it," Stewart said.
While Stewart can tick off the number of speeches McConnell gave before the law's passage and the number of Kentucky town halls he's held to hammer the law since Obama signed it, he also acknowledges political realities facing the movement to stop Obama's health care overhaul. "The question," he said, "is how to do it."
In Atlanta, Bozell said that argument amounts to "trying to have it both ways."
"They'll vote to repeal it," he said. "But they won't stand up and do everything they can to stop it."
Bozell predicted that voters would punish Republicans, particularly in the House, for passivity on the health care law. The president and Senate Democrats, he argued, would have to accept blame for any stoppage of government services.
At the National Republican Congressional Committee, which is responsible for defending the GOP's House majority, spokeswoman Andrea Bozek said: "It's a good thing any time we're talking about repealing and replacing Obamacare. Republicans are united and independents know that they would be living under a train wreck if this law is fully implemented."
She argued that it's Democrats who are "rooting for" a shutdown, a notion over which her Democratic campaign counterparts scoffed.
As for the political effect of that outcome for Republicans, Bozek said, "It's too early to know what the election will be about."