In all its fury and unanimity, the response from the right over President Obama’s decision to change immigration policy without the consent of Congress was the manifestation of a major transformation inside the Tea Party.
What started five years ago as a groundswell of conservatives committed to curtailing the reach of the federal government, cutting the deficit and countering the Wall Street wing of the Republican Party has become largely an anti-immigration overhaul movement. The politicians, intellectual leaders and activists who consider themselves part of the Tea Party have redirected their energy from fiscal austerity and small government to stopping any changes that would legitimize people who are here illegally, either through granting them citizenship or legal status.
“Amnesty for Millions, Tyranny for All,” declared The Tea Party Tribune, summing up the indignation among conservatives over Mr. Obama’s executive action to shield up to five million people from deportation.
A group of sheriffs is organizing a demonstration next month at the Capitol. Activists are sending fat envelopes stuffed with articles on illegal immigration to members of Congress.
And in their most audacious plans, Tea Party groups are preparing to recruit challengers to run against high-profile Republicans they accuse of betraying them — as they did when they toppled Eric Cantor, the former House majority leader. At the top of their list of potential targets are politicians like Senator John McCain of Arizona, a proponent of an immigration overhaul. Their fantasy candidate: Sarah Palin, Mr. McCain’s former running mate who now spends much of the year at her home in Scottsdale, Ariz. Two prominent conservative activists, who spoke anonymously to divulge private discussions, said leading Tea Party figures planned to reach out to Ms. Palin to see if she was interested in running against Mr. McCain.
The way they are organizing around the issue of immigration bears striking parallels to how the federal bailouts of financial institutions and the Affordable Care Act galvanized many of the same people in 2009 and 2010. The issues have shifted, but the common enemy has not: Mr. Obama.
“This is going to become the Obamacare for the 2016 cycle,” said David N. Bossie, president of Citizens United, a conservative advocacy group. “You’re going to see a constant drumbeat, a constant march.
“It will be no one thing,” he added. “When you call down the thunder, sometimes it’s not pretty.”
Conservatives say emotions over immigration run so high that the issue could be even more politically potent than the Affordable Care Act. Like many of the economic concerns that animated Tea Party supporters, immigration plays to people’s anxieties about their financial well-being and the future. Many conservatives who have long mistrusted Mr. Obama because they think his policies will fundamentally alter America believe his new immigration order will do just that, with millions of potential new foreign-born citizens even though the president’s action does not call for a path to citizenship.
The conundrum for the Republican Party is how to channel that energy. Turned against liberalism, as it was in the 2010 elections that ousted Democrats from power in the House of Representatives, it can deliver serious political advantage. But turned inward, as it so often has been over the last four years, it threatens to tear the party apart. In Virginia, Mr. Cantor’s defeat so emboldened activists that they have started using “to Cantor” as a euphemism for defeating establishment Republicans.
Conservatives see a moment of truth for the Tea Party as well. If they think Republican leaders in Congress are not doing enough to fight Mr. Obama on immigration, what is their recourse?
“What the Tea Party has struggled with doing is translating their ideological appeal into political clout,” said Laura Ingraham, a conservative author and radio host. “They don’t have a lot of political clout. They can get out the vote out, yes. But I’m talking about getting individual committee chairmen and senators who can mount a real challenge to the establishment forces when required. And can you do that from within the Republican Party?”
One challenge is that some of the party’s biggest financial backers want to see an immigration overhaul pass Congress. And groups that helped finance the Tea Party’s rise, like Americans for Prosperity, which is supported by Charles and David Koch, will not be there to help the anti-immigration reform cause.
Republicans on Capitol Hill are discussing a ways to challenge Mr. Obama but are struggling to find a path that does not anger the right. One would be to go to court; another, though it has been discounted by the House Appropriations Committee, would be to try to cut off funding. Other possible pressure points include refusing to confirm the president’s nominees, like Loretta E. Lynch, Mr. Obama’s pick to replace Eric H. Holder Jr. as attorney general. But satisfying the conservative base will be difficult. Tea Party activists are not likely to sit patiently while a lawsuit works its way through the courts. And many have already expressed skepticism about the Republican leadership’s willingness to see through a fight over appropriations.
Some Kentucky Tea Party activists are already talking about a primary challenge to Representative Harold Rogers, chairman of the Appropriations Committee, who has been in office since 1981. Breitbart News, a conservative website, reported on the possible primary challenger this week. Mr. Rogers’ office has said Congress could not simply defund the president’s directive, because the agency that carries it out, Citizenship and Immigration Services, is not financed by appropriations but by the fees it generates.
“Yes, there’s a risk to overreacting, but there’s a risk to underreacting as well,” said Rich Lowry, the editor of National Review. “And I fear that’s the way the congressional leadership is leaning.”
Mr. Lowry suggested one way Congress could react. “If I were John Boehner,” he said, referring to the House speaker, “I’d say to the president, ‘Send us your State of the Union in writing.
Other potential primary targets, Tea Party groups say, are Representative Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin, the 2012 Republican vice-presidential nominee, and even Senator Marco Rubio, Republican of Florida, who was elected initially with the help of Tea Party energy.
But that would be a tough and expensive fight. Almost all Tea Party challengers were defeated this year — with the race against Mr. Cantor the notable exception. And patience for low-reward tactics like a government shutdown is waning. As shown by how quickly even many of the staunchest conservatives on Capitol Hill tried to dismiss talk of closing the government to pressure Mr. Obama on immigration, the lessons of the 2013 shutdown are sinking in
Still, others see a conservative populist cause that will be hard to stop. In a speech to the Heritage Foundation on Friday, Senator Jeff Sessions, Republican of Alabama, made the case that Mr. Obama and the titans of business who supported his immigration policy, like Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, were ignoring the will of ordinary Americans who want good-paying jobs that are not taken by immigrants.
“We are a nation, and a nation owes things to its people,” Mr. Sessions said. “And the average working truck driver is worth just as much as Mr. Zuckerberg, just as much as the Wall Street masters of the universe. And who’s representing them?”