Organizing for Action

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The long struggle to save Obama's Affordable Care Act has invigorated liberal activists

Organizers say they have already enlisted more than 4,000 volunteers dedicated to building a new activist network

CNN —  

As President Donald Trump’s policies and rhetoric have put him increasingly at odds with the national Republican party, a leading progressive organization is kicking off a new grassroots campaign to link vulnerable GOP House members to Trump’s troubled brand.

Organizing for Action, the group spawned by former President Barack Obama’s national campaigns, is beginning the program by focusing on 34 seats in GOP-held congressional districts around the country where Trump received less than 50% of the vote last November.

Sixteen months out from the 2018 midterm elections, organizers say they have already enlisted more than 4,000 volunteers dedicated to building a new activist network. OFA’s plan is to enlist and train a small army of hometown organizers to agitate against endangered lawmakers like Rep. Carlos Curbelo of Florida and California Rep. Darrell Issa. Both congressmen voted to pass an unpopular Obamacare repeal bill in the House and are expected to face tough re-election bids next year.

Volunteers, many new to tedious arts of effective phone banking and canvassing, will receive training through the organization. Their energies will then be directed at recruiting friends and neighbors, and building capacity in an effort to pin down the nearly three dozen lawmakers highlighted on an OFA-designed website called “Rubber Stamp Reps.” If the designation sticks, they hope it will prove especially damaging in districts where Trump was a divisive figure even before his post-inauguration plummet in the polls.

Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake, a longtime Trump-skeptical Republican who has ramped up his criticism of the President with the release of a new book, recently offered the initiative a tailor-made talking point when he called out his colleagues for going along too easily with the administration’s wishes.

“We’ve got to get away from this attitude that you got to agree with the President and that a senator should be a rubber stamp for what the President wants at all times,” he told CNN’s Jake Tapper on “The Lead” last week.

But more than the flickering prospect of Republican insurrection, it was the long – and successful – struggle to save Obama’s Affordable Care Act that has invigorated liberal activists, who fended off Trump and Congressional Republicans to save the law against all odds.

“This health care fight was the most perfect embodiment of what’s possible when a grassroots movement really does come together and relentlessly speak out and go to town halls and make phone calls into district offices,” said Jesse Lehrich, OFA’s communications director.

On Thursday night, as OFA regional organizing manager Katie Robbins closed out a 15-minute introductory conference call, she urged volunteers on the line to “think about this as a long-term project” aimed at replicating recent the success on Capitol Hill.

“As we saw from the health care fight,” she said, “when we raise our voices together we know we can win these fights.”

The anti-Trump resistance, though, has an uneven record. Despite the administration’s struggles, Democrats were swept in a series of special elections to fill House seats vacated by Trump appointees, most notably the historically expensive contest for Georgia’s sixth congressional district. OFA’s new effort represents, in part, a concession that institutional efforts to cultivate a nationwide grassroots network withered during Obama’s two terms.

“We have to be honest about the fact that the conservative movement has been investing huge amounts of money and efforts to sweep everything from state houses to grooming house and senate candidates,” Lehrich said. “That conservatives had made huge gains at every level of government became very real when there was no President Obama as a backstop anymore.”

Obama no longer has a formal role with OFA, but his spokesman Kevin Lewis, speaking to Politico last week, nodded to its work in defending the Affordable Care Act.

“When the president credited those who mobilized and organized for protecting health care for millions of people, it wasn’t lost on him that OFA, among other grassroots organizations, played a significant part in that effort by training local organizers and educating communities about what was at stake,” he said.