Republican lawmakers face rising anger at town halls

Greg Nash

Republican lawmakers hoping for a break from the politically charged atmosphere in Washington, D.C., have instead been met with protests at home.

From California to Florida, liberal activists are bringing the fight to the doorsteps of GOP lawmakers, marching on the streets of their hometowns and making legislators’ lives miserable as they attend meetings and town halls with constituents.

{mosads}Hundreds of protesters lined the streets of downtown Janesville, Wis., on Saturday — just blocks from the home of Speaker Paul Ryan (R) — to protest President Trump’s executive order on immigration.

In Roseville, Calif., Rep. Tom McClintock (R) needed a police escort to cut through the protesters who demonstrated at his town hall event.

McClintock, who also held town hall meetings during the contentious  days of Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party, says he’s never seen anything like it.

“This was something very different,” McClintock told The Hill in an email. “After an hour, the incident commander for the Roseville Police Department advised us that the situation was deteriorating and felt it necessary to get me out of the venue. That’s never happened before.”

Several hundred more chanted at Rep. Peter Roskam (R-Ill.), who is being targeted by the House Democratic campaign arm, as he ducked into a car on his way out of a private meeting in Palatine, Ill.

And at an event in Pinellas County, Fla., Rep. Gus Bilirakis (R) faced an unruly town hall crowd as critics took the microphone to lecture him on the importance of saving the Affordable Care Act.

“I appreciate you sharing your story,” Bilirakis said after one man told the lawmaker that he would go bankrupt if Republicans repealed the law.

“Grow a spine!” shouted an angry protester.

News outlets are brimming with stories about the unrest. Liberal activists are filming the encounters and uploading damaging visuals of Republicans fleeing the ruckus on social media.

For Democrats who have seen their party lose control of Congress and many state governments, the protests are a hopeful sign that Trump has awakened the opposition.

“The activism we’re seeing in the streets and at airports and women’s marches is robust,” said Gara LaMarche, the president of Democracy Alliance, an influential network of liberal activist groups.

“We’re seeing it spring up at town halls and in places none of us anticipated,” he continued. “It is very encouraging to see that kind of activism from the grassroots. These are ordinary people rising up. … The real question is whether it can be sustained or aligned with the appropriate channels to make real political change.”

The flashpoint for many liberals was the Jan. 21 Women’s March on Washington, which attracted hundreds of thousands of protesters in the capital and at least 3 million nationwide the day after Trump was sworn in.

Since then, liberals have descended on major U.S. airports by the thousands to protest Trump’s temporary ban on refugees and immigrants. On Monday, hundreds more are expected to gather on Capitol Hill to protest Trump’s selection of Betsy DeVos to lead the Department of Education.

Now those protests are targeting Republicans at home.

On Sunday, several hundred protesters gathered outside Sen. Dean Heller’s (R) office in Reno, Nev., to pressure him to vote against DeVos. Last week, scores of protesters gathered on the steps of city hall in Portland, Maine, to demand that Sen. Susan Collins (R) stand up to Trump’s refugee order.

At a speech in Spokane, Wash., last month, Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, the chairwoman of the House GOP conference, was drowned out by chants of “save our healthcare.”

Rep. Kevin Brady (R) was greeted last month by shouts of “don’t lie” at a constituent gathering in Houston. And so many people showed up for one of Rep. Mike Coffman’s (R-Colo.) regularly scheduled open office events that he was criticized for having to turn many away.

Some of these exchanges have gone viral.

At a town hall event last weekend, Rep. Dave Brat (R-Va.) complained that “since ObamaCare and these issues have come up, the women are in my grill no matter where I go.”

A video of those remarks has been viewed tens of thousands of times on YouTube after it was played on MSNBC’s “The Last Word.”

The growing protests are giving plenty of political ammunition to emboldened Democrats.

Last week, Rep. Barbara Comstock (R-Va.) did not attend two previously scheduled public events. Liberals have seized on that to say she is fearful of the growing protests and dodging her constituents.

Democrats are looking to capitalize on this groundswell of liberal energy.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) has launched a “March into ’18” initiative designed to “harness the grassroots energy occurring across the country.” The DCCC will be hiring new full-time staff in 20 districts across the country where they believe Republicans are particularly vulnerable.

The Democratic National Committee (DNC) has developed a call tool to help constituents flood the phone lines of their representatives.

Republicans have so far been dismissive of the movement.

Several lawmakers feel the media is punishing them for making themselves available to constituents. A spokesperson for Bilirakis noted that the congressman and his staff stayed well beyond the allotted time at Saturday’s town hall “for the purpose of hearing directly from constituents on healthcare reform, whether they agreed or disagreed.”

Some lawmakers have alleged that the protesters are coming from outside their districts.

Brat claimed that the activists pressuring him were “paid protesters.” And on Monday, White House press secretary Sean Spicer alleged on Fox News’s “Fox and Friends” that the protesters are being paid to turn out.

“Protesting has become a profession now,” Spicer said. “They have every right to do that, don’t get me wrong. But I think we need to call it what it is. It’s not these organic uprisings that we have seen over the last several decades. The Tea Party was a very organic movement. This has become a very paid, Astroturf-type movement.”

But some Republicans are warning that the party must take the protests seriously. 

McClintock said that while there was “an organized and radical element that came to disrupt … the vast majority of the people there were decent and law-abiding folks sincerely opposed to President Trump and wanted to make their views known to their elected representative.”

Tags Cathy McMorris Rodgers Dean Heller Kevin Brady Paul Ryan Susan Collins
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