RICHMOND, Va. -- The federal government is again open for business, and Republicans in Washington are licking their wounds from the failed Tea Party attempt to derail President Barack Obama's health care overhaul. But here in Virginia's capital, conservative activists are pursuing a hardball campaign as they chart an alternative path to undoing "Obamacare" -- through the states.
One leading target is Republican state Sen. Emmett W. Hanger Jr., from the deeply conservative Shenandoah Valley, who prides himself on "going against the grain." As chairman of a commission weighing one of the thorniest issues in Virginia politics, whether to expand Medicaid under Mr. Obama's Affordable Care Act, he is feeling heat from the GOP right.
His openness to expansion has aroused the ire of Americans for Prosperity, the conservative advocacy group backed by the billionaire industrialist brothers Charles and David Koch. Dressed in emerald green T-shirts bearing the slogan "Economic Freedom in Action!" its members are waging what the senator calls "an attempt to intimidate me" in Richmond and at home.
They have phoned his constituents, distributed leaflets and knocked on 2,000 doors in his rural district. When the Republican town committee met Monday night in Mr. Hanger's home county, Augusta, Americans for Prosperity was there.
In Richmond, hundreds of volunteers in green shirts turned out Tuesday for a commission hearing, bused in by the advocacy group's field organizers, who provided Subway sandwiches for lunch.
"This has been one of those trench-warfare kind of efforts for a year now, and I think it is one of those hidden stories of the whole fight against Obamacare," said Tim Phillips, president of Americans for Prosperity. "It's not flashy; it's just in a whole bunch of state capitals and in the districts of a whole lot of state legislators, but it's such a crucial aspect of the overall long-term effort to roll back Obamacare."
The state-by-state strategy represents a split from the course pursued by Heritage Action for America and its sister organization, Heritage Foundation, which drove the "defunding Obamacare" movement that led to the recent government shutdown. In an opinion article published Friday by The Wall Street Journal, former Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., the foundation president, made no apologies. "Obamacare will now be the issue for the next few years," he wrote.
Expanding Medicaid, a joint federal-state program for the poor, is critical to the law's goal of covering the nation's 48 million uninsured. Hospitals and insurers were also counting on more Medicaid patients to make the economics of the law work. For states, the terms seemed attractive: The federal government would pay 100 percent of the cost of new enrollees for the first three years, 90 percent after that.
But in June 2012, the Supreme Court ruled that states could opt out of Medicaid expansion. The ruling opened the door for the law's conservative foes. Americans for Prosperity, with paid staff members in 34 states, walked through it. So did another group, Tea Party Patriots, which recently gave $20,000 to organizers of a referendum drive to put the Medicaid expansion question on the Arizona ballot.
First Published October 18, 2013 8:00 PM