Republicans stepped away from the Capitol this week and into a PR mess.
Aggrieved constituents — organized by a suddenly energetic liberal resistance movement — packed lawmakers’ district events in protest of GOP plans to repeal and replace Obamacare. Democrats were quick to circulate footage of the most cringe-worthy exchanges.
POLITICO reporters attended nine town halls and interviewed more than 60 attendees, including supporters and skeptics of the hosting lawmakers. At each event, Republican lawmakers wrestled with how to handle hecklers, rabble-rousers and genuinely distressed residents. Here are some takeaways from the week’s unrest:
The angst is real
Some Republicans — including White House aides — have complained that the protests popping up at town halls have been orchestrated by liberal activists, perhaps by paying out-of-district residents to pack GOP events. But lawmakers who showed up weren’t so sure they were facing an artificial resistance.
“I want to make clear: It’s all legitimate,” said Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) after facing critics at a string of Iowa town halls. “If Hillary Clinton had been elected president … people from the conservative end of the spectrum might be doing the same thing.”
Rep. Scott Taylor (R-Va.), who held three town halls on consecutive days this week in his coastal district also called his crowds “legitimate” and compared it to the tea party unrest that swept House Republicans into power in 2010. But just because it’s real, he added, doesn’t mean the views of town hall attendees reflect broader popular opinion.
“It’s not representative of my whole district. It’s just not,” he said. “That being said, they’re just as important as anybody else in my district.”
POLITICO interviewed dozens of attendees and found just one who had traveled from outside her home district to join protests. The woman, Linda Sullivan of Murfreesboro, Tennessee, said she wanted to protest her congressman, Rep. Scott DesJarlais, but that he hadn’t held any recent town hall meetings. So she drove to the neighboring district of Rep. Marsha Blackburn instead.
There were no signs of any outsiders being bused in and no evidence of any paid protesters.
Republicans making those claims have pointed to the work of the new liberal activist group Indivisible, which has been organizing to put Republicans on the defensive at town halls. But activists affiliated with the organization generally hailed from the district where they were organizing.
“This is all completely local,” said Sue Mastyl, organizer of an Indivisible chapter on Virginia’s Eastern Shore. She said the chapter was formed when a local woman, who couldn’t travel to the Women’s March in Washington on Jan. 21, decided to stand on a local street corner with a protest sign instead. Eventually, 80 people joined her, and they formed the core of what is now the local Indivisible chapter.
The surest applause line: Break with the GOP
Amid constant hammering by protesters sympathetic to liberal causes, Republican lawmakers found one sure-fire way to pause the venom: breaking from the party line.
Rep. Dave Brat (R-Va.) regaled his crowd with a story about meeting — and befriending — Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders at a White House Christmas party.
“Bernie is a buddy of mine,” he told the crowd in rural Blackstone, Virginia, after an attendee asked for any evidence of bipartisan cooperation. “He’s a truth-teller.”
Brat said voters who want to break D.C. gridlock should “keep voting for people like me or Bernie … who’s going to tell you the truth.”
Taylor, in his visit to Virginia’s Eastern Shore, pointed to a budding rapport with Hawaii Democratic Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, whom he said he met with last week to discuss national security issues.
“There are some things that I believe in that is not traditional Republican orthodoxy,” Taylor said, noting his support for legislation to decriminalize marijuana possession, as well as other criminal justice reforms.
Moscow on their minds
At nearly every town hall this week, Republicans faced questions about their view of investigations into Trump’s connections to Russia and whether they warrant an independent investigation. It was a break from the intensely personal focus that largely typified these town hall meetings, and it forced Republicans to wade into an issue that has loomed over the White House for weeks.
The GOP lawmakers nearly all responded that they trusted their colleagues on the House and Senate intelligence committees to investigate the matter rather than start a new independent commission. But they also agreed that the inquiries should be thorough and follow wherever the facts lead, drawing rare applause from audience members who worried Republicans would give the administration a pass.
Taylor told POLITICO that he hadn’t ruled out calling for an independent investigation, too, but he first wanted to see the results of the Senate intelligence committee’s inquiry.
“I think that’s actually detrimental to an investigation if you’ve got eight different committees doing the same thing,” he said. “Even if you’re a Democrat, you shouldn’t want that. You can diffuse the responsibility and put everything against each other and then it’s blur.”
Growing fear of a viral moment
For Republicans holding town halls, it’s a wager that showing up and facing tough questions will outweigh the risk of confrontations that go viral.
Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton appeared to be on the losing side of that bet when an exchange with a constituent — who said her husband was dying and that the two of them obtained affordable health care thanks to Obamacare — exploded across social media.
Others, like Michigan Rep. Justin Amash, California Rep. Tom McClintock and Virginia’s Taylor earned reluctant respect from the voters they faced at their own events, and they came away smiling.
“I get a kick out of this,” said McClintock, who held consecutive town halls in rural Northern California. With hundreds of people unable to get into a high school auditorium for his second town hall in the Sierra Nevada foothills town of Sonora, McClintock held an impromptu encore for those stuck in line.
Not every Republican was willing to gamble that they’d have events go as smoothly as their colleagues. They’re making a different gamble: that the flak they draw for refusing to face angry constituents will be easier to absorb than the potential for an unforced error or memorable altercation at a public event.
After watching the intense coverage of the angry town halls, some Republican strategists mused about the value of holding the events at all, pointing out that they had essentially become campaign theater, with little upside for the members involved.
“How about more digital townhalls? How about teletownhalls?” wondered GOP digital strategist Vincent Harris in a Wednesday tweet. “The footage is damaging to the mission and credit given for showing up isn’t enuf.”
Jennifer Haberkorn, Paul Demko, David Siders and Matt Friedman contributed to this report.