Five takeaways from the Republican town halls
PENSACOLA, Florida (CNN) — Republican lawmakers have suffered now through two weeks now of rowdy town hall meetings and endless protests from a surprisingly strong uprising on the left.
The passion and breadth of the anger has had many comparing this to the tea party uprising of eight years ago, a momentous shift in politics that ushered Republican control of the House.
After having watched these meetings across the country, a few trends have popped up: the election never ended, President Donald Trump is a lightning rod for Republicans and more.
Here are the five takeaways after two weeks:
People are afraid of losing their health care
The town hall battles began with the fight over Obamacare and some of the most deeply personal exchanges have come from people who are worried changes to the Affordable Care Act will cut their health care coverage.
Kati McFarland, a 25-year-old University of Arkansas student, pressed Sen. Tom Cotton continuously about what he was going to do about her rare degenerative disease.
“Will you commit today to replacements in the same way that you committed to the repeal?” McFarland asked the Arkansas Republican. But as Cotton attempted to say it was time for another question, the crowd shouted over him, pushing him back to her question with a simple chant: “Yes or no!”
After peppering Cotton with more tough questions, she ended with: “Before they ask their (questions), I would like an answer to mine.”
At other times, when it has appeared the lawmakers are ducking the question — protesters have turned the Affordable Care Act into a chant, screaming “ACA! ACA!”
Sen. Bill Cassidy, a Louisiana Republican and medical doctor, was shouted down repeatedly when he attempted to explain his position.
“Would you rather hear this man yell, or me answer a question?” asked Cassidy, who has co-authored a proposal that would allow states to keep Obamacare. A woman in the crowd fired back “Hear him yell!”
The election isn’t over
Trump is the President but the issues raised during the campaign are far from over.
Toby Smith, 7, pressed Cotton on Trump’s words on immigrants as well as his proposal to make certain budget cuts.
“Donald Trump makes Mexicans not important to people who are in Arkansas who like Mexicans, like me, my grandma,” Smith said.
“And he is deleting all the parks and PBS Kids just to make a wall … and he shouldn’t do that,” said Toby, voicing fears of some that the Trump administration will cut financial support to the National Park Service and public television.
The continuing investigation of Russian interference in the US elections — and their talks with Trump campaign officials — are constantly brought up as well.
“Will you hold Russia accountable for hacking, and how?” yelled one person at Rep. Leonard Lance’s town hall Wednesday night in New Jersey. This spurred Lance to say he would consider supporting stronger sanctions on Russia.
Trump’s refusal to release his tax returns is also raising hackles in districts.
Rep. Tom Reed, who along with all other Republicans on the House Ways and Means Committee last week turned away a Democratic effort to get the committee chairman to use his legal authority to obtain the returns, explained his position to voters.
“The reason why we voted against that is because if the government goes on an attack on one individual, that is a very dangerous level of power,” Reed said. “We make sure the government is held in check.”
Reed’s answers were met with loud boos, and chants of “Do your job!” “What are you covering up?” and “Russia! Russia! Russia!”
Trump galvanizes the opposition
It’s hard to see any of these town hall protests happening if any other Republican other than Trump was in the White House.
Merlee Harison said she simply would not have been out if Trump was not in office, as she stood in line with close to 2,000 others waiting to get into Cotton’s town hall.
But Harison also said her anger extended past Trump to include Cotton, because she views Trump as a “fog screen” for Republicans trying to push their priorities.
“I think most people understand Trump — know what he is, know what he isn’t. I’m here because I’m concerned about the Republicans who now think they have a mandate to do whatever they pleased,” said Harison, 80, of Fayetteville, Arkansas. “You don’t see this kind of thing when everybody is happy.”
Cotton did not directly say Wednesday evening whether he blamed Trump for the surprising turnout, but he laughed when asked if the town would be as crowded if Marco Rubio had won the White House.
“That’s fine, they can be angry with me, happy with me, I still serve them no matter what they feel about what I’m doing. I’m here to try to answer the questions as best I can and also to hear from them, so I’m looking forward to this evening and hope they are, as well,” Cotton told CNN.
For now, Trump is to the left what Obama was to the right eight years ago. It’s even led some liberals to say they now empathize with tea partiers.
Sanjay Rajput, a Democrat who attended Virginia Rep. Dave Brat’s town hall Tuesday, agreed with the notion that the highly charged environment at many town halls now resembles the tea party influence over town halls six years ago, saying, “if it worked for them, it should work for us.”
“If I could, I’d go up to a tea party person right now and apologize for accusing them of being paid because that’s what I did,” he added. “Nobody’s paying me. I’m standing up for what I believe.”
Lawmakers who grin and bear it do best
Some Republicans — including Trump — have reacted to the sometimes-rowdy town hall crowds by suggesting they are paid protesters.
The protesters are returning fire, by introducing themselves to members as local residents or bringing signs with their zip codes.
The Republicans who seem to perform the best are those who host in-person town halls and face questions, even if from an angry crowd, rather than ducking constituents while home during the congressional recess. Rep. Mark Sanford, a conservative from South Carolina, even coordinated his recent town hall with protesters there.
Lance, the moderate New Jersey Republican, said on CNN’s “New Day” he was happy 1,300 people showed up and that he was holding another town hall Saturday.
Sen. Chuck Grassley, a veteran Iowa lawmaker and Republican stalwart, said: “I learned that we’ve got issues that people feel very strongly about and we have to try to deal with them.”
Contrast that against the Republicans who refused to have town halls.
Protesters crashed Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s fundraiser for a Kentucky business group Tuesday. A mock, empty seat town hall targeting House Speaker Paul Ryan was held in Wisconsin because he declined to hold any town halls this break. And protesters have been trying to crash other Republican fundraisers — an Ohio group almost made it into one held by Sen. Rob Portman Wednesday night.
The Republicans who have gone halfway, attempting to control the fury, have met with similar backlash. Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst ducked out the back of her public meeting after attempting to keep questions limited to selected veterans in the crowd. Rep. Jim Jordan, an Ohio Republican, attempted to stick to his President’s Day plans Monday, but a crowd of roughly 200 protesters showed up and forced him to take their questions for 45 minutes.
How long will the anger last?
After only one month in to the new administration, it would be easy to dismiss the protests as leftover angst from the election — and that anger clearly fuels much of it. But the protests have grown to look more like a Democratic tea party and less like the second version of Occupy Wall Street, which flared up but fizzled without any sustained fuel.
New actions from the White House, such as repealing Obama administration protections for transgender students, will only keep the left engaged.
While the people who attend town halls may be locals, there are still professional organizers and scores of out-of-work Democratic staffers looking to strike back at Trump and Republicans. Leaders from the Indivisible group are former congressional staffers who have been advising local Indivisible chapters on how to organize and then confront their lawmakers.
The founder of Ozark Indivisible, Caitlynn Moses, started with the group’s guidebook a little over a month ago, and by Wednesday night she had led 2,000 people to confront Cotton. Cotton even arranged to meet in person with Moses before the event, then invited her on stage to ask the first question.
The big caveat is whether any of the energy will carry into the 2018 elections the same way it did for tea partiers and Republicans in 2010. This past week has been one recess, and then lawmakers head back to the Capitol, away from protesters. Tea party activists had the entire summer after House Democrats passed Obamacare to flood their town halls.
The first explosive town hall caught Rep. Jason Chaffetz offguard in deep-red Utah, two weeks ago, and put Republicans on guard heading into this week.
It’s not clear how hot the fire will burn when the lawmakers are back in Washington.