Sen. Joni Ernst (R) of Iowa jostled with a tense crowd of constituents Friday, becoming the latest GOP leader to field criticism over what voters see as dangerous complacency under President Trump’s agenda.
Speaking at a town hall at Coe College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Senator Ernst was met by angry constituents who booed her responses to questions about Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, climate change, and healthcare policy.
“She supports all types of education. I support all types of education,” she said, answering a question from a concerned educator regarding Ms. DeVos’s nomination and eventual confirmation.
The meeting was one of two Ms. Ernst held that day, the second in Des Moines. At both, she faced similar backlash.
“I am a strong believer in public education,” she said, speaking over a loud chorus of boos from the audience in Cedar Rapids. “Public education is very important in Iowa, but I also believe there are parents who have to make tough choices for their children.”
As a member of Congress, Ernst told the crowd that she and her fellow legislators “will hold her accountable.”
But that assurance wasn’t enough to quell the audience’s angst. Since Mr. Trump’s inauguration nearly two months ago, Democrats have ramped up resistance efforts to policies regarding immigration. They have flooded their representatives with calls and emails, donated to causes under threat of losing funding, and held protests of historic scale.
And they’ve also taken the conversation directly to their representatives at contentious town halls.
Last month, Rep. Tom McClintock (R) of California had police escort him out of a town hall after he said the rowdy crowd had an “anarchist element” that proved threatening, although the protesters did not resort to violence.
And just last week, Texas Rep. Joe Barton (R) told a man in the audience to “shut up” as he continued to yell criticisms of the congressman’s vote on a bill regarding women and domestic violence.
In some states, the meetings have become so volatile that representatives have elected to hold fewer.
Many have drawn parallels between the surge in unruly meetings and the conservative tea party movement that arose after the election of President Barack Obama. While anger on the right spurred a Congressional shift in the 2010 midterm elections and allowed Republicans to gain seats in the House and Senate and at the state level, experts say the town halls themselves weren’t constructive venues for pushing elected representatives to vote closer to constituents’ views.
"These meetings are really a part of a larger effort – in and of themselves, they don't create change," Trevor Parry-Giles, a communications professor at the University of Maryland who studies political campaigns and political rhetoric, told The Christian Science Monitor last month. "But they can be an indication of public sentiment that may culminate in real electoral change."
Friday’s town hall wasn’t a complete ideological clash. Ernst received applause when she aired concerns with Trump’s administration’s seemingly close ties to Russia and his opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
She also said she believed Trump should release his tax returns, becoming one of the first top GOP officials to do so.
“I think he should,” Ernst said.
That sentiment was met not only by cheers, but with a standing ovation from the crowd.