USA Politics

Tea party, reversed? How GOP town halls look from the inside.

understanding each other

The upheaval at Republican town halls is an echo of the rise of the tea party in 2009. And Republicans ignore it at their peril, experts say. 

Rep. Tom McClintock (R) of California fields questions at the Tower Theatre in Roseville, Calif., on Feb. 4. Representative McClintock had to be escorted by police as protesters followed him shouting 'Shame on you!'
Randall Benton/The Sacramento Bee/AP | Caption

Sitting in the front row of a congressional constituent day in Greensboro, Ga., with one of his daughters perched on his knee, Ron Denham felt like he was witnessing democracy in action.

The people at the meeting were loudly, assertively, and peacefully demanding accountability and clarity from a federal government official. This, Mr. Denham told his 10-year-old twin daughters, was a real-life “civics lesson.”

Then he walked outside after the event, and there “were state police cars everywhere.” Someone had called for backup. “Such a tremendous police response to free speech,” Denham says, dismayed.

Then former North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory suggested that a series of similarly contentious town halls across the country were the result of paid protests.

As a result, Denham says he has gone from “galvanized” citizen to one “on fire.”

Until last month, Denham did not know which congressional district he lived in, he says in a phone interview. But last Friday, he drove an hour and a half from his suburban home near Atlanta to the constituent event held by the offices of Georgia's two senators and a representative from a different district just so he could see and be heard.

He is one of the citizen activists who has risen up in what appears to be an uncanny reprisal of the 2009 birth of the tea party – but this time on the left.

In 2009, the Democratic playbook involved avoiding town halls and dismissing protesters as paid stooges. Then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D) famously said the protesters were not grass roots but fake “Astroturf.” A year later, tea party fervor reshaped Congress, with Democrats losing 63 seats in the House and five in the Senate. The Democrats have never recovered.

Today, the Republican playbook involves avoiding town halls and dismissing protesters as paid stooges. Utah Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R) called the protest that shouted him down at a recent town hall a “paid attempt to bully and intimidate.” Only 10 Republicans members of Congress are planning town halls next week, notes David Hawkings of Roll Call.

“That’s a dangerous gamble, for democracy over the long haul but also for the lawmakers’ own self-preservation as soon as the next campaign,” he writes in his blog.

Many political analysts agree. Republican lawmakers ignore Denham and his twin daughters at their peril. The events are certainly uncomfortable. Chants of “Shame!” and “Do your job!” have punctuated recent town halls. But, as in 2009, they speak to a deep unease that cannot be conveniently ignored.

“Democracy is a messy thing, and this shows it – and it’s also a fragile thing,” says James Thurber, founder of the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University in Washington. “That’s why members of Congress have got to get used to this and listen to the feedback or there will be consequences for them, electorally.”

How Republicans have responded

Some have. Rep. Justin Amash (R) of Michigan stayed an extra 40 minutes to talk with angry constituents. And Rep. Gus Bilirakis (R) of Florida rejected the allegations that boisterous constituents at his events were bused in and paid, responding: “Most of these people are my constituents."

But many Republicans have been knocked off-balance. One California representative was escorted out of a recent meeting by police, and several others have canceled events, citing the uncomfortable atmosphere.

On one hand, the trend – so soon after the tea party anger of 2009 – points to the rise of what political scientists call “negative partisanship.”

“One of the things we’re seeing in American politics right now is it’s easier to get people energized in opposition to things they don’t like than to get them energized to support anything their party or president is doing,” says Alan Abramowitz, a political scientist at Emory University in Atlanta. “People are really angry and worked up, and I don’t think it’s going to stop. In some ways, this is even more organic than the tea party.”

Yet for Caroline Keegan, the Greensboro event was about saving something she sees as positive: the Affordable Care Act.

At the Greensboro meeting, Ms. Keegan, a 20-something graduate student at the University of Georgia in Athens, for the first time in her life told strangers about a chronic medical condition that could ruin her financially should ACA be repealed. The speech, she says, was well-received by both the crowd and the aides to Georgia's two US senators and the area's US representative – all Republicans.

Afterward, she says, her hands wouldn’t stop shaking.

“I felt deeply thrown off balance, because this wasn’t just sort of a political issue that I was concerned about, this was a feeling of intense vulnerability and fear for my own body, and it really surprised me,” says Keegan.

So when a spokesperson for Sen. David Perdue – one of the legislators holding the event – called it a “manufactured protest,” Keegan felt like she had been slapped in the face.

To be sure, some crowds have been unruly and disruptive. And attendees say there have been partisan anti-Trump elements. The constituent day in Georgia was not even a town hall but a routine meeting to help elderly citizens navigate Social Security and Veterans Administration benefits.

“Initially, there was some concern amongst the sheriffs that there was going to be civil disobedience and some rowdy protesting,” Keegan says. “At the same time, the sheriff was very hospitable and welcoming, and the mood was really energetic. It was amazing.”

While Republicans have cited personal safety as a reason to cancel such gatherings, crowds so far have applauded, cheered, even defended police officers.

Representative Chaffetz pointed to an incident where two men wearing bandannas and handguns (which are legal to carry in Utah) urged the crowd to “rush the police.” But local police said the crowd instead stepped in to defend the police by forming a barrier.

“The crowd was great with us,” police Lt. Dan Bartlett told CNN.

On top ... but vulnerable

Republicans’ conundrum is how to play for time, says Sarah Binder, a political scientist at George Washington University.

“My guess is accusing the protesters of being paid rabble-rousers helps these lawmakers justify fewer or no town halls and buys them time to figure out what to do,” she says.

For all the their power in holding the White House and both houses of Congress, Republicans are in a sensitive situation. The same was true of the Democrats in 2009, after all. On average, 37 seats shift when there’s a president with less than 50 percent approval rating, according to Professor Abramowitz. So far, Trump is hovering around 40 percent.

“I don’t know if the Republicans realize how vulnerable they really are,” Abramowitz says.

For his part, Denham says his concerns are hardly partisan, but really just “kitchen table issues.” He wants to know what’s going to happen with Obamacare. And he’s worried that the tone in Washington is hurting women. One of his daughters recently said, “I can’t be an astronaut because I’m a girl.”

So far, the technology worker from suburban Peachtree Corners says the response from elected representatives to his questions “has been all adversarial.”

But Americans are demanding more. They “are getting off their couches and coming out,” says Denham.

And for lawmakers concerned about their safety, he offers a solution.

“Don’t worry, my twin 10-year-old daughters will protect you.”

Staff writer Francine Kiefer contributed to this report from Washington.