Republicans kicked off a monthlong respite from the drama surrounding national politics in Washington D.C. this week, only to return home to more chaos and anger from local constituents who elected them to office.
Just as Democrats faced the newly founded Tea Party protesters during the 2009 summer recess, GOP lawmakers were swarmed with major demonstrations immediately after heading back to their hometowns, mostly due to their agenda on health care.
Some of the response is ugly and ill-advised: “One protestor attending a town hall in California with Representative Doug LaMalfa—who voted in favor of replacing Obamacare with the GOP’s widely opposed American Health Care Act—wished for his death while holding a sign that read ‘Lackey for the Rich!’ ‘May you die in pain!’ He shouted at the Republican congressman.” There is no call for that, and as a tactical matter that sort of conduct only makes Republicans more sympathetic. In the main, the reaction is aggressively negative, but within bounds of political discourse:
In most photos from local reporters and Twitter users circulating social media during Republican town halls nationwide, protesters can be seen holding signs that read in bold letters “RESIGN,” “One Term Only” and other scathing messages calling for the removal of elected officials currently holding office.
Meanwhile, videos from inside the events show locals appearing dumbfounded and frustrated by Republicans’ responses as to their stalled agenda six months into holding power in both houses, and their policies on issues such as health care and the environment.
For some lawmakers, time back home should impress upon them the disconnect between what voters want, on one hand, and, on the other, what party leaders, the White House and right-wing interest groups demand. For example, Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) who ran as a moderate, constructive conservative in 2014 and handily took away the “war on women” issue by supporting over-the-counter access to contraception, is running into a firestorm in reaction for toeing the party line on health care. He voted in favor of the “skinny repeal” that would have, among other things, ended Obamacare’s individual mandate (leading to a spike in premiums) and defunded Planned Parenthood for a year. At an event in Durango, Colo., he got an earful:
One man asked “why on Earth” Gardner voted for the Republican health care bill when the vast majority of his constituents opposed it.
“Seven years ago, when I ran for Congress, I said that I would vote to repeal and replace Obamacare, and I’m going to continue to live up to the promise I made,” Gardner answered while some in the crowd shouted him down.
Gardner has been criticized for months for failing to hold an in-person town hall. He has held telephone town halls, including one Wednesday night during which he also fielded questions about heath care. Citizens have held protests at his office in Denver, demanding that he vote against efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act.
Some members are desperately trying to walk the tightrope between constituents and partisan demands. Rep. Will Hurd (R-Tex.) is one of nearly two-dozen Republicans in districts Hillary Clinton won in 2016. His margin was only 1.3 points, so he has been targeted by Democrats as among the most vulnerable incumbents. He’s tried to separate himself from President Trump on the wall (he’s opposed), NAFTA (he’s for it) and health care (he voted against the final House bill to repeal-and-replace Obamacare), but Democrats aren’t buying his pitch as an independent voice. (“They point out that Hurd votes in line with Trump an overwhelming amount of the time — the theme of a fundraising email that went out Sunday from former U.S. Rep. Pete Gallego, D-Alpine, who represented the district from 2013-2015, unsuccessfully challenged Hurd last year and is now weighing another run for the seat.”) Over and over again Hurd is being asked to comment on Trump, forcing him to distance himself from a president many Republicans still support:
While Hurd’s opening remarks at each stop made no reference to Trump, the president ultimately emerged as a topic of discussion in almost every setting, often as Dairy Queen Blizzard blenders whirred in the background and unsuspecting customers came and went.
At some stops, there was palpable anxiety about the opening months of Trump’s presidency. In El Paso on Sunday, Alma Castillo, 63, broke into tears as she shared a story involving the threat of deportation, saying Trump was divvying up the country by race with his hard-line immigration push.
GOP lawmakers in swing districts and states, if they didn’t fully appreciate it before, should understand that association with Trump is bad for their political health. That may affect how they vote in September when they face votes on the debt ceiling, the budget and tax reform. They may still have the angry voices of constituents ringing in their ears, creating even more headaches for the White House and GOP leaders desperately trying to please the right-wing base and have something to show for their control of both houses.