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GOP finds fix for chaotic town halls: Don’t hold them

Angry constituents packed an auditorium, grilled the congressman with questions and peppered him with boos and chants while protesters amassed outside. (Video: Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post, Photo: Rick Bowmer/The Washington Post)

Rep. Jason Chaffetz’s (R-Utah) town hall last week marked a high point for the progressive “resistance,” with voters flooding a high school gym, demanding answers on the GOP’s agenda, and chanting “do your job.” The videos of that town hall swiftly went viral.

Swarming crowds and hostile questions are the new normal at GOP town halls

On Thursday, the Utah Republican Party settled on its response to the town hall drama: Don’t let it happen again. In a news release, the party said Indivisible Utah, an affiliate of the grass-roots movement that has grown wildly since the presidential election, “surrounded a car” at Chaffetz’s town hall, “denied members of his Congressional District from engaging their Congressman” and was part of a disruptive national movement.

“This organized mob has displayed hostile, violent, and deliberately disruptive behavior, which is unfair to constituents as it hijacks town hall meetings to prevent any type of meaningful discussion,” the party said. “Because of this clear demonstration of violence, if congressional members feel they cannot provide adequate security they should consider tele-town halls to reach out to their constituents instead. If smaller, special interest groups want to meet, they can request meetings with their congressional leaders in controlled environments to minimize the chances of harm until these disruptive behaviors have ended.”

After angry demonstration in Utah, Chaffetz returns to more wrath in D.C.

According to the Town Hall Project, which collates information about public town halls, there are no availabilities in Utah — where every federal officeholder is a Republican — over the coming week. That’s not a fluke. Just 19 Republican members of Congress have scheduled traditional town halls over the week-long recess. Several more, like Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), have listed ticketed events or “office hours;” a few more have announced tele-town halls, which allow constituents to lob questions without risking a “YouTube moment.”

Since Republicans took control of the House six years ago, helped by angry, viral town halls that embarrassed incumbent Democrats, big public meetings have become rarer and workarounds like the tele-town hall more common. But in the past week, as Indivisible, Organizing for America and other progressive groups have become more open about demanding town halls, some Republicans have become bolder about shutting them down.

A few have put their rationales down on paper. In a letter to constituents first shared by the Knoxville News Sentinel, Rep. John J. Duncan Jr. (R-Tenn.) said that he valued being accessible but would not indulge protesters by holding a public event.

“I am not going to hold town hall meetings in this atmosphere, because they would very quickly turn into shouting opportunities for extremists, kooks and radicals,” Duncan said. “Also, I do not intend to give more publicity to those on the far left who have so much hatred, anger and frustration in them. I have never seen so many more sore losers as there are today.”

In North Carolina, an activist who asked whether Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) would hold a town hall got a letter attributed to the senator, explaining that it simply wouldn’t be worth it.

“As of late, it has become apparent that some individuals who are not really interested in meaningful dialogue attend town halls just to create disruptions and media spectacles,” Tillis wrote in the letter, which was shared with The Washington Post. “This is particularly unfortunate because it leads to a scenario in which only the loudest voices in the room can be heard and very little meaningful discussion can actually occur. While I am certain you have no interest in being a part of such a session, clearly some folks have intentions that are not as pure as yours.”

Republicans have gotten crucial support for this position from conservative media and from the campaign organizations tasked with keeping their majority. In a memo to reporters, largely consisting of a CNN story about how a constellation of progressive groups were organizing town halls, the National Republican Congressional Committee denounced a “top-down effort” to manufacture controversy. “Fox and Friends,” a cable news morning show that President Trump watches regularly (and praised in Thursday’s news conference), has frequently highlighted violent protests and hyped reports that some protesters are being paid.

“George Soros is manipulating protests behind the scenes,” Bill O’Reilly told Fox News viewers last month.

This week, the NRCC shared a story that would be cited by Utah’s GOP — a protest at the office of Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) in which a 71-year-old staffer, Kathleen Staunton, was injured. According to CBS Los Angeles, “Staunton was trying to exit through the front door of Rohrabacher’s office to visit a restroom when, according to Rohrabacher, a protester yanked the door open, causing her to fall and hit her head.” No charges were filed, but in a statement, both Rohrabacher and the NRCC suggested that the incident revealed the true, dangerous nature of Indivisible.

“Deliberate or not, the incident came as part of a mob action that not only intimidates but coerces,” Rohrabacher said. “Though the protesters think of themselves as idealists, they engaged in political thuggery, pure and simple.”

“Concerned citizens, huh?” wrote NRCC western regional spokesman Jack Pandol, sharing the story with reporters.

And in Florida’s conservative first district, the rumors of violence at town halls inspired a local activist, as well as members of Bikers for Trump, to encourage armed supporters of Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) to “protect” him. (Bikers for Trump also appeared at inaugural week events in Washington, with no incidents.)

“I need all patriots in attendance to protect Congressman Gaetz from any potential disruption of his speech,” Geoff Ross wrote on Facebook, as first reported by the Huffington Post. “Concealed carry permit holders most welcome – don’t forget your ammo.”

As it’s become clear that few members of Congress would hold town halls, Indivisible has designed contingency plans. On Thursday night it held a call for activists and shared its Missing Members of Congress Action Plan, with ideas like posting “Missing” signs in the district, and holding “empty chair” town halls. Several empty chair events are planned for this week, including one targeting Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and one targeting Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.).

But progressive activists aren’t alone in their frustration. Americans for Prosperity, the grass-roots conservative group co-founded by David Koch, has promised to hold Republicans accountable — in public — if they do not fully repeal the Affordable Care Act. Heritage Action, the grass-roots political arm of the Heritage Foundation, has done the same, and compiled a partial list of public town halls for activists.

Just a few Republicans made that list, and the Republicans sounding most confident about the upcoming recess generally are ready to break with the party’s leadership. Thursday night, at a roundtable at the Newseum sponsored by BuzzFeed, House Freedom Caucus member Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) said that he would be holding a public meeting in his district and knew full well that progressive activists would find it.

“God bless ’em for coming out,” said Jordan.

Ed O’Keefe contributed reporting.