The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

GOP lawmakers wouldn’t come to a town hall — so voters brought literal empty suits

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In the past two months, Republican lawmakers who have dared to brave town halls have been upbraided, booed and yelled at over policy decisions, Cabinet votes or even just the fact that they share a party affiliation with a polarizing president.

Some legislators are taking a simple lesson from the shouting: You can’t get booed if you don’t show up.

Rep. John J. Duncan Jr. (R-Tenn.) has rejected calls to host a town hall, saying in a letter that he doesn’t want to give “more publicity to those on the far left who have so much hatred, anger and frustration in them.”

And voters in Lexington, Ky., have been clamoring for the state’s congressional representatives — Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Sen. Rand Paul and Rep. Garland “Andy” Barr — to tackle constituents’ questions in person. They even booked a venue for Saturday and hand-delivered town hall invites to the politicians’ offices.

The legislators were a no-show, but that didn’t stop things. Instead of McConnell, Paul and Barr, organizers propped up three mannequins wearing suits.

They called it the “Empty Suits” town hall.

Richard Young, one of the organizers, told Lexington-area radio station WUKY that attendees included everyone from “people who are very, very progressive to disaffected Republicans who say this is the only time in their lifetime they have not voted for a Republican.”

A Republican senator defended Betsy DeVos at a town hall. Boos drowned her out.

He said the calls for town halls are a reaction to legislators’ actions in the past two months. “They’re not just coming out of nowhere.”

But Tres Watson, a spokesman for the Republican Party of Kentucky, told the radio station that the events — including the Empty Suits town hall — are highly partisan affairs.

“These are purely partisan individuals who are clearly bitter about election losses,” he said. “They’re representing fringe minority opinions of policy issues.”

The groundswell of town hall-centered voter angst mirrors the rise of the tea party movement after Barack Obama was elected president — except with the political parties flipped.

As The Washington Post’s Amber Phillips wrote: “Republicans are getting an unexpected jolt from both the left and their own anxious base at these town halls — and it’s a moment that looks like a mirror image of the national mood almost a decade ago.”

For a lawmaker on a stage facing a wall of angry constituents, things can get rough.

In February, Phillips reported, thousands of people crammed into a town hall hosted by Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), who months earlier won reelection with 73 percent of the vote.

On that night, though, voters hissed at him: “You work for us” and “Do your job.” People who couldn’t get into the town hall stood outside yelling, “Bring him out!”

And Sen. Joni Ernst got a similarly sour reception when the Iowa Republican hosted two town halls in her home state last week.

Ernst, the first female combat veteran to serve in the U.S. Senate, was booed at the meetings, especially when she said Education Secretary Betsy DeVos had been “carefully vetted.”

And at an Anderson County Chamber of Commerce meeting last month, McConnell was yelled at by a woman upset about the high number of people forced to go on welfare in Kentucky and about long-gone coal jobs that she said are not going to come back because of market forces, according to the Louisville Courier-Journal.

Before McConnell tackled her question, she took a jab at his decision to invoke a Senate rule to stop Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) from speaking during the confirmation hearing for Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) to become attorney general:

“If you can answer any of that,” the questioner told McConnell, “I’ll sit down and shut up like Elizabeth Warren.”

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