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Like Democrats Before Them, GOP Dismisses Town Hall Threat

There’s little data to gauge electoral threat protests pose for 2018

New Jersey Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen says he’ll be sticking with tele-town halls for the near future. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
New Jersey Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen says he’ll be sticking with tele-town halls for the near future. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Ask Republican lawmakers about the specter of protests in their districts next week, and they’ll likely shrug off constituent outbursts as “manufactured” or “scripted.” 

The GOP is largely adopting the Democratic posture from the summer of 2009 that angry voices at town halls don’t represent a political threat. That may be true. The question is how Republicans now, and Democrats back then, arrived at that conclusion. 

Even as some GOP lawmakers move to hold their constituent forums online or over the phone instead of in-person, they insist they’re not worried.

In a Wednesday letter to Republican chiefs of staff, Matt Gorman, communications director at the National Republican Congressional Committee, dismissed recent protests that have erupted at town halls across the country.

“Don’t be fooled by this incredibly vocal minority that is attempting to drown out the millions of voices that have — since its passage — called for Obamacare’s repeal,” he wrote. 

A partisan movement?

Unlike the tea party, Republicans say, this year’s protests are a strictly partisan reaction to the 2016 election, with Democrats targeting Republicans. 

“I don’t have scientific methodology to say that or prove that to you,” said FreedomWorks’ Jason Pye, whose tea party-aligned group is organizing its own protests to encourage lawmakers to repeal the 2010 health care law.

“But based on the emails I’m getting from groups on the left — I subscribe to them all — I doubt this is an organic movement,” Pye said. 

To Republicans, the conservative bent of the districts where some of the most vociferous protesting has occurred is proof that GOP lawmakers have nothing to worry about. Tennessee Rep. Diane Black encountered tough questions last month, but both she and President Donald Trump won her district by nearly 50 points last fall.

“There’s a huge difference between political theater, which people are paid to create, and the actual feelings of constituents, which show up in surveys and election results,” said longtime GOP operative Mike Shields, who recommends members do “tele-town halls” because they can reach more people. 

Utah Rep. Jason Chaffetz encountered 1,000 constituents inside a high school auditorium in his district last week, with hundreds more left outside. The Beehive State has never been hospitable to Trump, but the congressman won a fifth term by 47 points last fall. (About 78,000 people voted against Chaffetz, so even in his district, there’s a base of people to protest him.)

“The idea that suddenly there’s a big liberal movement there that could take the congressman out is absurd,” said Shields, a veteran of the Republican National Committee and, most recently, a super PAC dedicated to preserving the GOP’s House majority. 

Republicans have pointed to a SurveyMonkey poll that found that 85 percent of participants in last month’s women’s marches identified as or leaned Democratic. The online poll, conducted Jan. 26-30, sampled self-reported marchers. Republicans haven’t yet done their own polling of the crowds, but they’ve cited this survey as proof that the protesters don’t pose a new political threat to them.  

Democrats, however, see protests in ruby-red districts as evidence of the extent to which Americans — even Republicans — have woken up to the reality that they might lose their health care. 

“The way they’ve gerrymandered the hell out of districts, [Republicans] feel warm and toasty safe. But it’s a time like this that has a way of taking out members,” said Democratic media consultant John Lapp, a former executive director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. 

When the roles were reversed 

Democrats would know. They acknowledge that at the time of the tea party’s rise, their party was slow to see the writing on the wall

But there were signs.

“In 2009, we saw a dramatic shift as the health care debate went on over the summer,” said Jon Vogel, who was executive director at the DCCC at the time. Generic ballot polling in Democratic congressional districts started to trend toward the Republicans.

“Between the August town halls and the November loss of the Virginia and New Jersey governors’ races, that’s when the problems we were facing crystallized, even if we weren’t ready to admit it,” said Jesse Ferguson, a former DCCC communications and independent expenditure director. 

“From then on, there were a lot of attempts to convince ourselves it wasn’t a big deal but they were all just distractions,” Ferguson added. 

In the spring of 2010, Democrats won the special election to hold on to the late Rep. John P. Murtha’s seat in Pennsylvania, reassuring the them that they could weather any tea party insurgence at the ballot box that fall.

Instead, the party lost 63 House seats in the midterm election. 

“I don’t think anybody really saw the wave that was coming until people started counting votes on election night,” said Bill Burton, a DCCC veteran from the 2006 cycle who worked in the White House during President Barack Obama’s first term.  

Democratic opportunity? 

Burton cautions that Democrats have work to do to harness this year’s town hall energy for 2018. 

Vogel predicts there’ll be even more energy on Democrats’ side once congressional Republicans move closer toward repealing the health care law.  

“I find it hard to believe we’re going to win that seat in Utah,” Vogel said. “But if we have that much energy there … imagine how much energy” there may be in a true swing seat.”

Colorado Rep. Mike Coffman, who represents a perennially targeted swing district, was one of the first Republicans to find himself overwhelmed by the number of constituents who showed up at an event to meet one-on-one with him. The five-term congressman hasn’t planned a town hall for next week. Instead, he said he’ll be visiting hospitals and advocacy groups.

Representatives from the NRCC’s communications staff have met with at least 70 members’ offices over the last several weeks to offer suggestions about remaining “visible and accessible to their constituents.” But Gorman stressed in Wednesday’s letter that the types of public events members host is up to them. 

Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen won his New Jersey seat by 19 points last fall, but he finds himself on the DCCC’s target list this year. He won’t be holding any in-person town halls next week, though. He’s cited scheduling and the difficulty of finding a venue in his suburban 11th District.

Meanwhile, a group of Democratic and Republican constituents who oppose repealing the health care law and cutting off funding for Planned Parenthood have secured venues for town halls, which they plan to hold with or without the congressman. 

Asked on Tuesday in an interview off the House floor whether he sees that kind of protest as a political threat, Frelinghuysen demurred.

“Quite honestly, everybody works pretty hard to represent their district,” he said, before scurrying into an open elevator. 

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