BENTON, Ky. — The congressman was home in Kentucky now, traveling through his district for the first time in a month and worried that, for Republicans, the “wheels were falling off.” Washington had been feeling like a city on fire. Every day brought a new crisis. Russia. The FBI. The vote to replace the Affordable Care Act, which he had cast just before leaving. “So much doom and gloom,” Rep. James Comer (R-Ky.) said. “It can play games with your mind.”
Like others in Congress, Comer would have a week at home on recess to reconnect with his voters. Typically, a recess is a time for town halls. But this time, most members were not holding any. Comer’s plan was different — to hold four over the next three days.
“The perfect storm,” one aide told him, even as Comer’s Twitter feed showed video clips of a few other members facing angry crowds and stumbling to explain themselves.
“Everybody is ducking for cover right now,” he told her. “Everybody’s had the same advice for me — cancel them.”
But he wasn’t going to. Comer was a freshman lawmaker who had been sent to Washington with 73 percent of the vote, figuring he knew absolutely what people wanted from him. Over the past few weeks, though, it was becoming harder to tell. On social media after the health-care vote, people warned him his career was “going up in flames.” By the time he left Washington, where he slept on a mattress in his office and watched CNN every night, he was starting to think, “This Trump thing may not be sustainable.”
That’s what he wanted to find out on this trip home: Was this Trump thing sustainable or not? Was Trump still popular here? Had he lost this part of Kentucky?
Comer’s congressional district is a horseshoe across the southern part of the state, 6 ½ hours by car end-to-end, that is 90 percent white and where nearly 1 in 5 people live in poverty, more than 1 in 6 are disabled, and 72 percent voted for Trump. Maybe it was a rookie mistake, but Comer had pledged after the election to hold a town hall in every one of his 35 counties; to keep his word, he packed every recess with events — including the one he was driving to now, in Benton, Ky., when his cellphone buzzed.
His district director, who was already at the courthouse, was on the line.
“How bad is it?” Comer asked.
He listened for a moment
“Like 100?” he said.
“Oh my God,” he said. “Is the sheriff’s office there?”
Ten minutes later, he arrived at the town square. Protesters were out front with mock tombstones. One woman was prone on the grass, fake blood across her body.
Time for the first town hall. Comer sneaked in through a back door and headed up the stairs.
Inside, 120 people sat shoulder to shoulder, and 30 more leaned against the walls. Comer walked up to the lectern and thanked so many for being engaged — one of the good things, he said, “about the environment we’re in now.”
He looked out at the crowd — people in T-shirts, camouflage and khakis, old county officials, a few familiar faces. He saw somebody holding a notebook and furrowing her brow. He saw two or three people training their cellphone cameras on him and wondered whether something was about to happen that would end up on YouTube. A woman in the front row had a “Disagree” sign in her lap. She wasn’t holding it up yet.
He cleared his throat and then started talking about the most controversial thing he had been involved with so far, his vote to repeal the ACA. He said the ACA had deepened the problems in Kentucky by opening up such wide access to Medicaid, the health-care program for low-income Americans. He said so many had signed up across the state that nearly 1 in 3 were now covered under that program — and receiving free coverage. Some of those people, he said, desperately needed that help. But many were feeding off the system.
“If you live here, you know somebody who looks like me, is on Medicaid, and is just not working,” he said.
Some nodded. Others groaned, and Comer sensed an edge in the room. He asked for questions.
A hand shot up. A question about Trump’s tax returns. What was Comer doing to pressure the president?
This one he’d answered before. Trump wasn’t obliged to release anything, Comer said, though it would be nice if he did.
Another hand. “What about people between 60 and 65?” a woman said, her tone sharp. “I’m hearing we’re going to get slammed” by higher health-care costs.
Comer started off by saying costs would not rise but then backed off. “I don’t know the answer,” he said, “but I’m going to try to find that out.”
Another hand. A man named Randy Gray.
“I’d like to come up there,” he said.
“Yes sir, yes sir,” Comer said, a little uncertainly.
Gray grabbed a canvas bag from under his seat and put it on a table next to Comer.
“I just want to use this as a demonstration,” he said.
As Comer watched, he reached into the back, pulled out two vials, and placed them on the table. He said he had an immune disease. He was “not quite the boy in the plastic bubble, but close.” Then he lifted his shirt to show Comer four needles in his stomach.
Comer leaned in to take a closer look.
“Now these two bottles right here represent $13,000 a week worth of my medicine,” Gray said.
Some people in the room began whispering — “$13,000?” — as Gray kept talking. “This is really an emotional issue for me,” he said. He said he was terrified because Obamacare had removed caps on lifetime spending limits for health care, and now Donald Trump’s health-care bill was threatening to bring those limits back. “I feel like I can’t sleep at night,” he said, because those vials were the one thing that kept him alive, and everything he was reading about the bill only mentioned “tax breaks for the rich.”
Gray showed Comer the medical pump he used for injections. “I know four people in western Kentucky that have to use this pump,” he said. “And it’s a struggle.”
“I can imagine,” Comer said, before correcting himself. “I can’t imagine.”
Gray took a half step toward Comer, squaring him up, and leaned in until they were almost face-to-face.
“I want you to think about people like me,” Gray said. He jabbed his pump at Comer. “I didn’t ask for this. Believe you me, I’d rather be like you and be perfectly healthy.”
“Thank you,” Comer said softly as Gray sat back down, and 45 minutes later, after more angry questions, after seeing the “Disagree” sign raised again and again, after hearing from a woman who said the new health-care bill “will probably be the death of me,” Comer was down in the lobby of the courthouse as the building emptied out. A few friends, who had watched on a live feed, texted him to say he had done a good job. An aide said the crowd had been stacked with Democrats trying to mobilize.
“Do you feel okay about it?” one aide asked him.
“I do,” Comer said.
But two hours later, on a near-empty highway just before midnight, Comer couldn’t get out of his head the terrified man with the vials.
“When that guy lifted up his shirt,” Comer said, “the first thing I thought of is how lucky I am that my kids were born healthy.”
One town hall down, three to go.
Next day, back on the road, Comer was looking out the car window at factories and chicken farms in a region that had given him its overwhelming support. His election had been an unlikely thing. He was a farmer from a Republican family who made it to the state legislature by age 28. He was the director of a community bank. He briefly owned a few Quiznos restaurant franchises. He became Kentucky’s agriculture commissioner at 39. At 42, he lost a narrow and nasty 2015 primary race for governor, after which he figured he’d go back to the family plot and “dig ditches for a while.” But then an 11-term congressman from Kentucky’s 1st District said he was retiring, and Comer decided he was ready for one more race, and back he went along the same roads, visiting ham festivals and gun shops, his campaign ads saying he would “teach Washington insiders a thing or two about our Kentucky values.”
“Look at that,” Comer said now. Two yard signs stuck together, left over from the campaign. “Trump’s is right on top of mine.”
The second town hall was in a county where Trump had won 85 percent of the vote. This time, there were no protesters, and Comer went in through the front door of the courthouse. He was cheered when he walked up to the lectern, and when he said, like Trump, that he wanted to make America great again, he saw 75 people leaning in, listening, not ready to pounce.
So he told his favorite Trump story. Two months earlier, he had flown on Air Force One with the president on the way to a rally in Louisville, and hours later he was returning to Washington in the same plane — only this time, with an invitation to join Trump in his private office. “Yes sir,” Comer said he told the president, and there he sat for 1 ½ hours, across from Trump and right next to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), as Trump talked about his plane and his election victory and his health-care plans. The plane landed at Joint Base Andrews, and Trump had another invitation for Comer: Did he want to take the Marine One helicopter back to the White House? Did he want to see the Oval Office?
“Yes sir,” Comer said again, recreating his wide-eyed look for the crowd, and nearly everybody laughed.
This time, the questions were different. A few people mentioned problems with high insurance premiums and asked him to help. Nobody brought up the Trump’s tax returns, nobody talked about Trump’s firing of the FBI director, nobody talked about Trump’s relationship with Russia, and in the hour-long town hall, only three or four people seemed upset. One of those people, in the second row, raised her hand.
She said Trump’s behavior was “treasonous,” adding, “I personally don’t have much confidence in somebody that spent two hours with Trump and was all googly-eyed.”
“Well, he won this district by 55 points,” Comer said to her, and a lot of people in the room clapped, and some people cheered, and afterward, as the room emptied, two people walked up and handed him chocolate and butterscotch pies.
On the third day, the first of the two town halls was a morning event, just 30 in the crowd, and the questions couldn’t have been gentler. One of the people who stood up talked about Kentucky the same way Comer often did, calling the place where he lived a “check county,” meaning that too many people were dependent on government handouts. Another person asked Comer about what Washington was really like, and Comer answered by saying it was a place filled with “competitors” and “egos.” There was barely a mention of Trump.
“That was the friendliest town hall in the world,” Comer said as he walked out, and now he was in the car with his district director, saying of Trump, “He’s still so popular.”
It was raining, and he was heading west through some of the most rural parts of his district.
“I saw some poll, nine out of 10 people who voted for Trump still would,” he said. “I think that’s true here. That’s my assessment of the attitudes.”
He looked out the window and started talking about the differences between being a politician in Kentucky and in Washington, of civilities and incivilities. “We used to ride together, go to O’Charley’s, go to LongHorn,” he said of the Democrats with whom he served in Frankfort, the state capital. “That never happens in D.C.”
He rolled up to the last town hall, in Calhoun, population 763. He shook hands with some police officers and the county executive, and soon was standing in front of 75 people. “Trump won this district by 55 points,” he was saying, when a woman interrupted to say, “That’s very sad.”
“Fifty-five points,” he said again, turning to a part of the room where a few people were sitting with hand-lettered signs.
“One-and-done,” one of them said.
“There are 435 congressional districts in America,” Comer said. “This was his fourth-best.”
“And one reason people support the president, in my opinion — ”
“No, it’s that he’s not a politician,” Comer said. “He’s not politically correct. He doesn’t speak in sound bites. And that’s what the American people want. I think we need to give him a chance. It’s been 110 days.”
There was some shouting. A baby started crying. More cross-talk. Comer couldn’t get a word in. One man interrupted and said Trump’s policies, such as deregulation, were saving the country. Another said Obamacare had been a disaster.
“I’m gonna take two more” questions, Comer finally said, still competing with some yelling, and one man in the rear of the room stood up.
“I’d like for y’all to keep up the good work,” he began. “I don’t think anybody would expect you to turn it all around in five months — or the president in 100 days. Especially when it’s been going downhill for eight years.”
“Amen,” one person said.
“That’s right,” said another.
The room broke into applause.
And Comer had his answer: Four town halls. A few angry people. Two pies. A lot of applause. Was the Trump thing sustainable? Here, it was.
“Thank you,” he said as the last of the town halls concluded, and then it was back to Washington, back to the mattress on the floor, back to the doom and gloom and whatever would come next. And as soon as he could, back home to Kentucky again.