FLAT ROCK, N.C. — Mark Meadows wears his gray hair neatly trimmed and parted. He has been happily married to one woman for 36 years. And “humble” does not begin to describe the two-term Republican congressman’s aw-shucks, nonconfrontational manner.
Donald Trump, in other words, he is not.
But to the hundreds of constituents gathered in a community center auditorium for a Friday night town hall meeting, the differences are purely superficial. The two men, in the different ways, have come to embody the deep disenchantment many Republicans feel about the leaders of their party.
“When we look at the majority of the American people,” Meadows tells the crowd, “when they believe that their leadership is letting them down, there is only one option out there for us, and that’s to change that leadership.”
The roar of applause that follows reflects the same sentiment that has pushed Trump to the front of the Republican presidential field, the same resentment that helped foment a two-week government shutdown two years ago and could well do the same this year.
The leadership that Meadows refers to isn’t that of President Obama; rather, it’s the Republican leadership, in the person of House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), whom Meadows proposed deposing this summer in a procedural gambit last attempted 105 years ago involving GOP Speaker Joseph G. Cannon of Illinois.
Boehner in July dismissed Meadows: “You’ve got a member here and a member there who are off the reservation. No big deal.”
But the summer told another story in the stunning success of Trump, as well as fellow candidates Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina — none of whom have previously held public office and present themselves as untainted by previous political careers.
Trump’s anti-establishment message, gleefully mocking not only Democrats but also a hapless Republican establishment, has emboldened congressional conservatives ahead of their return to Washington Tuesday. And as Congress prepares to take crucial votes on the Iran nuclear deal and funding the federal government, Meadows looks like a much bigger deal than he did in July.
“If they haven’t gotten the message that they need to change the direction of our leadership, it could be a very ugly fall for our party,” said Rep. Mick Mulvaney (R-S.C.). “The people who are for Donald Trump are against John Boehner, and John needs to accept that and figure out what to do about it.”
That sentiment could make for a messy fall on Capitol Hill. Conservatives in recent weeks have made their demands of Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.): Oppose the Iran deal by any means necessary. Don’t capitulate to Democratic demands to boost federal spending. And, above all, don’t fund Planned Parenthood past the Sept. 30 end of the fiscal year.
“If we can’t get that done, oh my goodness,” said Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), chairman of the House Freedom Caucus. “We need to do what we said we were going to do.”
The prospect of mounting an open challenge to Boehner, who repeatedly swatted away conservative revolts during his nearly five years as speaker, was hotly debated within the confines of the Freedom Caucus, the hard-line rump of the House GOP.
Few thought anything was to be gained by moving to oust Boehner ahead of the summer recess. When Meadows filed his motion July 28, the day before the House left Washington for its six-week summer recess, he drew a withering reaction.
Jordan, who has tried to avoid open warfare between the Freedom Caucus and GOP leadership, has been reticent to discuss Meadows’s bid to unseat Boehner. “It is what it is,” he said.
But many, including Mulvaney, now refer to the Meadows motion as a “sword of Damocles” hanging over Boehner. They are insisting that he pursue a harder line against Democrats in the coming months, even if means shutting down the government. Both the speaker and McConnell insist there will be no government shutdown. Under House rules, the motion could be brought quickly to a vote at virtually any time.
Intraparty clashes, of course, are nothing new. But these days, a combination of partisan redistricting, the abolishment of earmarks, a fundraising infrastructure and a completely upended media environment has undermined the stick-and-carrot system that have kept members like Meadows in line for decades.
Where the most crucial opinion-maker used to be the editorial page of a middle-of-the-road hometown newspaper, national conservative talk radio and social media have come to matter more. Incumbents reliant on a national party fundraising network can now, to some extent, appeal to a national base of conservative activists.
A day after filing his motion, Meadows, 56, drove eight hours to his home in the western North Carolina mountains. “I went from a lion’s den to a petting zoo,” he said.
A 2011 redistricting turned the 11th Congressional District from swing territory to the state’s most conservative. Moderate Democrat Heath Shuler decided not to stand for reelection in the reconfigured district, and Meadows, who moved from Florida to a Jackson County resort town as young man and built a real estate career, emerged from an eight-candidate Republican field.
Over the course of a recent 12-hour workday, Meadows heard nary a discouraging word despite having declared war against the leadership of a party whose presidential nominee won more than 60 percent of the vote here in 2012.
“He’s making most of the people happy, which is hard to do,” said Kenny Barnwell, a Henderson County apple grower, during a roundtable discussion on immigration policy that held the potential for fireworks: Agribusinesses such as Barnwell’s, which are dependent on immigrant farm workers, are desperate for federal reforms, and Meadows is part of the conservative bloc that has kept reform bills off the House floor.
The anti-establishment firebrand is a curious role for Meadows, who lacks the sharp tongue and rhetorical edge of fellow hard-liners like Jordan and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.).
Meadows says his motion was “a desperate move” rather than an angry one, a plea for Boehner to “change the way that we do business in the House.” The resolution outlined a number of grievances, ranging from a lack of debate and floor amendments to having “caused the power of Congress to atrophy.”
While the move has vexed his party colleagues in Washington, it has delighted conservative activists back home.
“He’s been an unbelievable surprise,” said Jane Bilello of the Asheville Tea Party. “We really thought he was an establishment guy: Here we go again. . . . They go up to Washington, they sip the Kool-Aid, and they go off the rails. But this is something that he has not done.”
Meadows won early notice by writing a letter that hardened the anti-Obamacare strategy that led to the 2013 shutdown. He voted against Boehner in the January speaker election, then had a brush with martyrdom in July after he was stripped of his chairmanship of an oversight subcommittee in a move widely interpreted as retaliation for opposing leadership on a closely watched procedural vote.
His gavel was restored days later, which quelled a conservative uproar but left Meadows unafraid. He proudly describes his recent travails, including the resignation of his D.C.-based fundraiser and what he says are quiet attempts by the Washington establishment to recruit a primary challenger. In the eyes of many activists, that makes him well-positioned to lead the anti-leadership insurgency.
Since July, he has taken frequent calls from presidential campaigns (he remains unaligned), has made numerous appearances on conservative talk radio shows and is scheduled to be the featured speaker Saturday alongside commentator Glenn Beck at a “9/12” rally in Florida.
“He’s not scared of the grass roots,” said Adam Brandon, chief executive of FreedomWorks, the activist group organizing the rally. “He knows these are the people who get him elected.”
Few Republicans have been willing in recent weeks to openly attack Meadows, and even members of Boehner’s leadership team have handled the move with kid gloves.
Chief Deputy Whip Patrick McHenry (R-N.C.), who represents a neighboring district and is a frequent target of anti-establishment activists, declined an interview request. He recently told a constituent in a letter that the move against Boehner "will needlessly pit like-minded conservatives against one another, instead of increasing positive dialogue among conservatives."
But Boehner loyalists and leadership aides who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they did not want to be targeted by activists are frustrated at what has the potential to become an ill-fated reprise of the 2013 shutdown.
"I don't what his endgame is," one GOP member said. "I think he's just kind of making it up as he goes along."
Meadows himself has expressed regrets about his past role, telling the Asheville Citizen-Times last year, “Should I have maybe gotten another strategy to address that? I think history shows us the answer to that is yes.”
Despite the ultimatums he and his conservative compatriots have delivered, Meadows said he doesn’t see history repeating itself: “I don’t see any scenario where we shut the government down.”
At the same time, he draws a fine distinction between 2013 shutdown threats, which sought to use the congressional power of the purse to undermine a federal law, and the current demads to defund a particular group. And he insists that party leaders must be more responsive to grassroots demands.
“What we’re hearing over and over again is that commitments and expectations were built, and they have been failed to be delivered on,” Meadows said. “We’ve got a Republican Senate and a Republican House. With you guys in control, what are you going to do? That is what we’re going to have to answer for. “