FLANDERS, N.J. — After the embarrassing collapse of their ObamaCare repeal bill, most House Republicans are steering clear of town halls over the two-week April recess.
Not Rep. Leonard Lance.
The unassuming, moderate New Jersey Republican walked into the lion’s den Wednesday night — the third town hall he’s held in his bucolic congressional district since President TrumpDonald TrumpFormer defense secretary Esper sues Pentagon in memoir dispute Biden celebrates start of Hanukkah Fauci says lies, threats are 'noise' MORE took office.
Flanked on stage by two police officers, Lance was greeted with boos, jeers and hisses. People in the crowd held up signs of a red thumbs-down when they disagreed. And he was repeatedly heckled and interrupted as he struggled to finish answering constituents’ questions.
On at least two occasions, he was drowned out by standing ovations for speakers urging Lance to fight climate change and GOP healthcare plans.
“We’re voting you out next year!” one man yelled at Lance as cheers erupted in the room.
Addressing his constituent’s “catcall,” Lance replied that “2017 should be a year of governance, not politics.”
But for many of the nearly 400 people who packed Mount Olive High School’s performing arts theater on Wednesday, emotions from the bitter 2016 presidential race are still raw.
Several attendees told The Hill that frustration, anger, even disbelief that Trump now occupies the White House motivated them to turn out at Lance's town hall.
“A lot of it is Donald Trump, because I believe Donald Trump ran on fear and he ran on hate. That’s how he became the president and that scares the crap out of me,” said a man who only wanted to be identified as Chris, a counselor who backed Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersRestless progressives eye 2024 Key senators to watch on Democrats' social spending bill Five ways Senate could change Biden's spending plan MORE (I-Vt.) during the election.
“If [Lance] aligns himself with Trump’s policies, then I will be prepared to vote him out.”
The scene at Lance’s town hall meeting reflects the energy and enthusiasm from Democrats and liberal activists as they fight to block the Trump agenda and unseat any vulnerable Republicans who could help them flip control of the House in 2018.
Lance, a former state lawmaker and second-generation New Jersey politician, is one such target — though no major Democrat has jumped in the race to challenge him yet. He easily dispatched his 2016 Democratic challenger, social worker Peter Jacob, by more than 10 percentage points. But his affluent, moderate district — roughly 50 miles west of New York City — went for Democrat Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonCountering the ongoing Republican delusion Republicans seem set to win the midterms — unless they defeat themselves Poll: Democracy is under attack, and more violence may be the future MORE over Trump, 48.6 percent to 47.5 percent.
President Obama and his signature healthcare law are still very popular here.
That isn’t lost on the 64-year-old congressman, who was first elected to the House in 2008. A member of the centrist GOP Tuesday Group, Lance voted for the GOP’s repeal-and-replacement bill in the House Energy and Commerce Committee but announced he could not support it on the floor.
Three other New Jersey Republicans — Reps. Frank LoBiondo and Chris Smith and House Appropriations Committee Chairman Rodney FrelinghuysenRodney Procter FrelinghuysenBottom line Republican lobbying firms riding high despite uncertainty of 2020 race Ex-Rep. Frelinghuysen joins law and lobby firm MORE — also publicly opposed the GOP’s American Health Care Act because it would leave a half-million more Garden State residents without health coverage.
LoBiondo went the furthest, saying ObamaCare was better than any GOP alternative health plan. A fourth New Jersey Republican, Rep. Tom MacArthur, has been an integral part of the House negotiations given his role as Tuesday Group co-chair.
But Lance may be the only New Jersey Republican to host a town hall over the spring recess. Constituents had to sign up for the event on Lance’s website to prove they lived nearby. His office then passed out raffle tickets, and Lance picked tickets out of a box to give everyone a fair shot to ask a question.
The questions were all over the map. Lance was pressed on whether Trump should release his tax returns, on internet privacy and on the U.S. missile strike on a Syrian airbase last week. For the record, Lance said Trump should turn over his tax returns but not be forced to. Lance thinks the Federal Trade Commission, not the Federal Communications Commission, should regulate internet service providers. And he urged Trump to seek approval from Congress before carrying out more military strikes against Syrian government forces.
But his exchanges with constituents on healthcare got the most heated.
“I don’t feel that you’ve represented my interests or the majority of the constituents that are in your district, ” Janet Katz, a Chester Township resident, told Lance. “I want this repeal crap to stop!”
Lance pledged that he wouldn’t support any GOP health bill that rolled back coverage for people with pre-existing conditions or eliminated ObamaCare’s “essential health benefits,” which dictate what services insurer must provide. Members of the conservative House Freedom Caucus specifically targeted that provision during negotiations over the House GOP's healthcare bill.
“I’m opposed to the bill in its current form,” he said.
After a half-hour of questions, Lance headed to a nearby classroom and spoke with reporters, including a handful from New York and Washington.
Asked by a Hill reporter what he thinks of his colleagues avoiding town halls, Lance replied: “I learn a great deal at town hall meetings, and I do not choose to instruct other members what they should do.”
“Presumably they know their districts,” he continued. “I know in this district that I have held town hall meetings and tonight was an example of that.”
By showing up in Flanders, Lance sent a simple message: He may be vulnerable, but he’s not running away from his constituents. Or the press.