Republicans at risk in 2018 steering clear of town halls

Republicans at risk in 2018 steering clear of town halls
© Greg Nash

Most Republicans in swing districts are steering clear of in-person town hall gatherings this week, hoping to avoid the anti-President Trump protesters determined to make them the star of a viral YouTube video.

Instead, these at-risk Republicans are holding small roundtable discussions, Facebook chats and virtual town halls — formats that can more easily be controlled than traditional meet-and-greets.

It’s a safer strategy, but one that comes with a political risk: Democrats are mocking Republicans for running away from their constituents as their party seeks to gut ObamaCare, build a border wall and temporarily ban travel from seven Muslim-majority nations.

Vulnerable two-term Rep. Barbara Comstock (R-Va.) hosted an online town hall on Tuesday but has not scheduled any in-person events, according to the Town Hall Project, which tracks constituent events. Rep. Ryan Costello (R-Pa.) also will host a pair of virtual town halls later this week.   

Rep. Rod Blum (R-Iowa), another top Democratic target, has scheduled “office hours” at two locations on Wednesday. And Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R-Fla.) has virtual town halls planned for March, but no large, in-person events.

In an email Tuesday, Curbelo said he’s held plenty of public events during his past two years in Congress; he just thinks the hundreds of protesters turning up at congressional events in recent weeks are only interested in causing trouble. 

“I’m holding tele-town hall meetings that maximize constituent participation by providing greater access. I’m also constantly meeting with constituent groups throughout the district and will continue doing so,” the Miami Republican told The Hill.

“I’m just not going to be a part of any planned-chaos events.”

Jesse Hunt, a spokesman for the House GOP's campaign arm, said the series of protests are part of a coordinated push by progressive groups to "manufacture chaos" at Republican events around the country.

"After failures at the ballot box in consecutive election cycles," Hunt said, "Democrats will try anything to distract from an agenda that's out-of-touch with Middle America."

So far, it’s mostly been Republicans from ruby-red districts and states who’ve opted to face the furious crowds.

Over the Presidents Day weekend, Sen. Tim ScottTimothy (Tim) Eugene ScottSenators demand cyber deterrence strategy from Trump CNN's Bakari Sellers: Democratic leadership is 'old and stale' Politicians, faith leaders react to passing of Billy Graham MORE (R-S.C.) and Rep. Mark Sanford (R-S.C.) were repeatedly raked over the coals during a joint constituent town hall in Mount Pleasant that ran for three-and-a-half hours.

And Sen. Chuck GrassleyCharles (Chuck) Ernest GrassleyGOP senator blocking Trump's Intel nominee GOP leaders to Trump: Leave Mueller alone GOP leaders back second special counsel MORE (R-Iowa), who as a Finance Committee member will be instrumental in the GOP’s healthcare efforts, squared off Tuesday with about 100 Iowans who warned him not to touch -ObamaCare and urged him to challenge Trump.

In some cases, Democratic activists went where they were not welcome. More than 1,000 protesters jeered and chanted at Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellGOP senator blocking Trump's Intel nominee Spending bill delay raises risk of partial government shutdown support GOP leaders to Trump: Leave Mueller alone MORE (R-Ky.) on Tuesday as he made his way to a speech in Lawrenceburg, Ky., The Associated Press reported. 

“No ban, no wall, Mitch McConnell take our call,” the activists chanted at him. Those who managed to get inside the private event repeatedly interrupted his speech with shouts and boos.

Rep. Gus Bilirakis (R-Fla.) got an earful from pro-ObamaCare constituents during two recent town hall events in his district. Video footage from the events was broadcast far and wide on cable news and online.

But Bilirakis is coming back for more. He’s holding another town hall Wednesday in Chapel, Fla., and plans to host others.

“We have a duty and obligation to listen to our constituents. We let everyone speak, tell their story and ask questions. I think it’s very healthy,” Bilirakis told The Hill. 

“It’s my duty as an elected representative to listen to them.”

Among the Republicans with tough races in 2018, there are a few exceptions to the trend of skipping town halls.

Rep. Martha McSally (R-Ariz.), who represents a swing district won by Democratic presidential nominee Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonKoch-backed group launches six-figure ad buy against Heitkamp Trump keeps up 'low IQ' attack on Maxine Waters GOP leaders to Trump: Leave Mueller alone MORE, is holding a town hall on Thursday following protests from constituents who demanded that she hold a public event. More than 400 people have already signed up to attend, with some on a waiting list, according to local media outlets.

Meanwhile, GOP Rep. Brian Mast’s southeastern Florida district was previously represented by a Democrat, but went for Trump in November. The freshman lawmaker plans to hold a town hall on Friday specifically offering services for veterans, but he said in a Facebook announcement that “you don’t need to be a veteran to come.”

“All I ask is that you’re respectful of those who sacrificed for our country and engage in a polite conversation about the ways we can make progress for our veterans and our community,” wrote Mast, a decorated Army veteran who lost both legs while serving as a bomb technician in Afghanistan.

But most Republicans targeted by Democrats are avoiding freewheeling public events altogether.

“It’s clear that vulnerable House Republicans who voted to rip apart the Affordable Care Act without a replacement plan are running scared from their constituents, and it’s only making the backlash in their districts grow stronger,” said Tyler Law, a spokesman for the House Democrats’ campaign arm.

GOP lawmakers overall are more than three times more likely than Democrats to hold constituent town halls remotely if they host such events at all, a LegiStorm analysis published Tuesday found.

It’s an uptick from last year, when Republicans held 2.5 times more remote events than their Democratic counterparts.

Virtual town halls give lawmakers and their staffs more control over when constituents dial in. They have the added benefit of preventing activists from shooting video of a lawmaker in hopes of getting attention online.

But some of the activists demanding in-person town halls aren’t taking no for an answer.

After facing pressure from a coalition of left-leaning groups to hold a town hall this week, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) made an impromptu appearance outside his district office on Tuesday and took questions from protesters and supporters.

“We go a little bit in the right direction toward positive discourse that will allow us to really, really get some solutions on immigration, on healthcare and about a Middle East that is blowing up,” Issa said, according to the San Diego Union-Tribune. 

Rep. Justin AmashJustin AmashTwo-year defense spending smooths the way to a ready military House Oversight a gavel no one wants Trump, GOP at new crossroads on deficit MORE (R) represents a safe Republican district in Grand Rapids, Mich., but still faced a rowdy crowd at a town hall earlier this month. That’s not stopping him from holding another this Thursday.

“Their concerns are reasonable,” Amash said. “We might not always agree on how to resolve some of these issues, but I think it’s important to learn from people who come to your town halls and communicate so there’s no misunderstanding.

“I hope more of my colleagues will do that, will go back home and talk to people and not hide from their own positions. Express your positions and try to have a conversation with people about how to achieve the outcomes that I think we all want.”

- This story was updated on Feb. 22.