Conservative groups are preparing to use the deepening public distrust of the Internal Revenue Service to discredit the Affordable Care Act, and the Democrats who support it, in the 2014 election cycle.
Now that the IRS has admitted to unfairly targeting conservative groups seeking tax-exempt status, Republicans plan to make the agency, which is responsible for carrying out much of President Obama's health care law, the poster child for dysfunctional government, and a giant liability for Democrats.
"This has certainly been a kind of unwelcome vindication for the Tea Party," said Dean Clancey, vice president of public policy at FreedomWorks, which spent more than $19 million in the 2012 election. "We consider this a wonderful teaching opportunity to remind people that the IRS is the main enforcement agency of Obamacare; even more so than [the Health and Human Services Department]."
When it comes to the Affordable Care Act, the mood among conservatives is a lot rosier now compared to what it was in the 2012 election when talking about health care was all but off limits because the Republican nominee for president, Mitt Romney, had signed his own health care bill into law as governor of Massachusetts.
"The 2012 [election] should have been a referendum on that law, but it couldn't be because of Mitt Romney," said Keli Carender, national grassroots coordinator for the Tea Party Patriots. "With him out of the way, we can go back to focusing on Obamacare."
The IRS's recent troubles have been disastrous for the agency's popularity, just as it prepares to play a larger role in enforcing the Affordable Care Act's universal mandate.
A new Gallup poll found that distrust of the IRS was now approaching lows last seen in the mid 1990s, when the agency endured blowback for its policy of targeting low-income taxpayers for audits and collection of back taxes.
According to the poll, 62 percent of Americans believe the IRS has too much power compared with the 31 percent who believe that it has just the right amount and the 60 percent who said the IRS abused whatever power it did have.
Democrats are effectively caught between a rock and a hard place. They had no choice but to swiftly condemn the IRS for inappropriately targeting conservative groups, but in doing so, they may have helped Republicans open the door to a second front of attack on the IRS.
Republicans hope that the deeply unpopular agency will become an albatross around the necks of Democratic candidates, especially those in more conservative districts.
"There is no better boogeyman in politics than the IRS," said one Republican strategist. "So the fact that you can put the IRS on a piece of literature or you can talk about them in a television ad, that's a good thing for us."
At a recent press conference, Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., who has aggressively sought to repeal the health care law, even went so far as to suggest that there might be implications for "access to health care" or "denial of health care."
National Republicans aren't quite going that far, but they have jumped into the fray.
Already the Republican National Congressional Committee has launched a new set of attack ads against Arizona Democrats Ann Kirkpatrick and Ron Barber, Georgia Democrat John Barrow and Minnesota Democrat Collin Peterson that link the IRS's troubles to its support for the health care law.
For their part, Democrats are doubtful that Republican attempts to take advantage of the political moment will actually work a second time around.
"Republicans just lost a national election on trying to repeal this law and take away patients' rights and they're just doubling down on that failure. The fact that this Republican Congress has put Congressman [Scott] DesJarlais – fined for inappropriate behavior with patients – in a leadership role on health care tells you all you need to know," said Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spokesman Emily Bittner.
"Republicans are taking their cue from the Bachmann playbook with this attack, but the 2014 election will be a referendum on the dysfunction, obstruction and extremism of the Republican Congress," she added.
Both the Tea Party Patriots and FreedomWorks say their ultimate goal is to pressure Congress to slow the implementation of the health care law, even if its repeal has become increasingly unlikely.
It is exactly that politicization that former IRS Commissioner Mark W. Everson feared in his testimony before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee last year. Everson said that by putting the IRS in charge of executing the health care law, Congress opened the agency up to apolitical "savaging" not unlike what it experienced in the late 1990s when the agency was even more unpopular than it is now.
Now, in light of the current scandal, Everson told ABC News that his fears might have been justified.
"This whole chapter is very disturbing," said Everson, who is a vice chairman at Alliant Group and served as commissioner of the IRS between 2003 and 2007. "I do worry that we'll now be in another period where people are very conservative and they don't feel comfortable doing their jobs as well as they should."
Everson said that if the IRS had any chance of surviving these political headwinds, Obama must appoint a permanent commissioner soon who has enough bipartisan support to mend the agency's relationship with Congress and the public.
"It is incumbent upon the president to get a new confirmed commissioner in there as soon as possible," said Everson. "One who is capable of rallying the troops and has the respect of all parties so they can star to rebuild the agency."