GOP grapples with how to handle town halls

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Should congressional Republicans head for the bunkers, or continue to defend President Trump and the GOP agenda at raucous town hall events across the country?

Republican leaders are grappling with that question as they try to contain the political fallout from the nonstop media coverage of anti-Trump constituents and activists disrupting and dominating GOP town halls.

There weren’t many, but the handful of House and Senate Republicans this recess week who chose to face their constituents at town hall events back home were booed, heckled, jeered, screamed at — and in some cases chased out of the room.

At some meetings, constituents pleaded with lawmakers not to repeal ObamaCare, giving personal testimony about how they or their spouses could die without healthcare.

All of it was caught on video and played on a seemingly endless loop on cable news networks and social media.

{mosads}The viral video clips portrayed Republicans on the defense as Democrats pressure them to leave ObamaCare alone, launch an independent probe of the Trump team’s ties with Russia and to “resist” the new administration at every turn.

Those Republicans who opted against holding traditional town hall events haven’t fared much better. Democratic activists staged protests outside members’ district offices, as well as mock town halls using empty chairs or cardboard cut-outs of the absent lawmaker.

Rep. Paul Cook (R-Calif.) found his image plastered on milk cartons in a local grocery with the word “MISSING.”

Almost all of those who held town halls this Presidents Day recess, including Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) and Rep. Dave Brat (R-Va.), hail from safe, ruby-red districts and states, so it’s unlikely they would have suffered politically if they skipped them.

But on Capitol Hill, some Republicans are privately questioning whether the town halls — and the negative media coverage surrounding them — are serving any benefit for the party.  

Conservative Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Ala.) suggested the Democratic protests could spook the GOP and prevent it from tackling its ambitious 2017 agenda, including the repeal and replacement of ObamaCare.

“There are, in my opinion, a significant number of congressmen who are being impacted by these kinds of protests, and their spine is a little bit weak,” Brooks told a local radio station, according to CNN.

“And I don’t know if we’re going to be able to repeal ObamaCare now, because these folks who support ObamaCare are very active,” he continued, “They’re putting pressure on congressmen, and there’s not a counter-effort to steel the spine of some of these congressmen in tossup districts around the country.”

For now, Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and his leadership team haven’t asked rank-and-file members to skip these rowdy, rough-and-tumble town halls. But they are encouraging members to also take advantage of alternative, virtual ways of connecting with constituents, including telephone town halls or Facebook Live chats.

“It’s clear members are well prepared and happy to engage with folks who disagree with them, but unfortunately we’ve seen some groups of protesters simply take over meetings, shouting members down rather than engaging in a spirited question-and-answer session, which is not productive for anyone,” said a House GOP leadership aide.

“Members are going to decide how to go about this based on how they feel they can best serve their districts.”

What’s clear from the spate of town-hall protests this week is that some lawmakers handle the pressure better than others.

Cotton’s town hall in a sprawling Springdale High School auditorium produced several cringeworthy moments. The hostile crowd repeatedly chanted, “Do your job!” and later erupted in loud booing when the Arkansas senator tried to move on from a woman’s question about his opposition to ObamaCare, according to CNN.

At one point, a 7-year-old boy challenged Cotton on proposed GOP cuts to PBS television programming and Trump’s plans to build a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border.

But others seemed to relish the chance to mix it up with constituents and make the case for GOP policies.

Rep. Dan Webster (R-Fla.) has held several small meetings with constituents at offices across his Orlando-based district. The key to keeping the peace, said the former Florida speaker of the House, is to assure everyone at the outset that they’ll get an opportunity to talk and be heard.

And freshman Rep. Scott Taylor (R-Va.), a former Navy SEAL, was able to use his calm demeanor to tame the crowd at a town hall in Melfa, Politico reported.

Rep. Tom Reed (R-N.Y.), an early Trump supporter, held a pair of town hall last weekend and vowed to do more. Since his election to Congress in 2010, Reed has held more than 200 public events.

“To represent the people, you have to listen to them, even if they adamantly disagree with you,” Reed told The Hill. Town hall participants, he said, “reinforced the need to make sure Medicaid is secured for those who fear losing healthcare.

“We must get our message out there to alleviate anxiety and anger that people possess as a result of inaccurate information.”

Ryan and his GOP leadership team are choosing other ways to sell their 2017 agenda rather than confront angry crowds back home. None of the top four House Republicans — Ryan, Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (Calif.), Majority Whip Steve Scalise (La.) and Conference Chair Cathy McMorris Rodgers (Wash.) — held traditional town halls this Presidents Day recess.

Ryan raised cash in Florida, Texas and the San Francisco Bay area; he also toured the southern border by helicopter, boat and horseback as Republicans prepare to find funding for Trump’s “great wall.”

Meanwhile, Scalise on Friday held a tele-townhall with 3,750 constituents and appeared on Fox News. Earlier in the week, he toured a NASA facility to discuss jobs and see damage it sustained from recent tornadoes.

In Bakersfield, Calif., hundreds of protesters gathered this week outside a hotel where McCarthy was holding a fundraiser. Days later, they marched to the GOP leader’s home in southwest Bakersfield and held a vigil to draw attention to healthcare and immigration issues, local news outlets reported

Tags Cathy McMorris Rodgers Mo Brooks Paul Ryan Tom Cotton
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