MARION, Ohio — It was Rep. Jim Jordan’s second Presidents’ Day visit to the home of Warren G. Harding, but it was the first to be surrounded by protesters. Nearly 200 people had swarmed the building, their signs accusing the congressman of being a pawn of the Koch brothers who wanted to pollute Ohio’s streams and rip health insurance away from sick people.
“I’m trying to take all the questions from people with signs calling me all kinds of nice names,” said Jordan, a Republican who represents parts of northwestern and central Ohio.
Jordan, a member of the Freedom Caucus who has not drawn a credible challenger since joining the House in 2006, was the latest Republican to face an irate and organized town hall audience. He took it in stride, fielding 40 minutes of questions from the porch where Marion’s favorite son waged his presidential campaign — a short, three-month campaign, a museum historian noted.
The politics of 2017 had given Jordan a permanent campaign, one he was game to wage. Some of his colleagues had dismissed protesters as “paid” or otherwise prefab. A few had pointedly told their constituents that they would not hold town hall meetings so long as a “radical” element was crashing them. Asked whether he thought the protesters were in any way suspicious, Jordan shrugged.
“Frankly, I don’t care,” Jordan said in an interview en route to the event, after downing a buttered biscuit and coffee. “If there are people here who aren’t constituents, they’re still Americans. I’m happy to talk to them.”
The Marion town hall was organized like most of the events that have bedeviled members of Congress this year, with a number of progressive and Democratic groups converging and sharing tips.
More than 50 people had signed up after MidOhio Indivisible, the local branch of a national project to help progressives force public answers from their congressmen, listed the Jordan event on Facebook. Janet Garrett, Jordan’s 2016 Democratic opponent — whom he’d defeated in a 2-to-1 landslide — had encouraged supporters to drive with her from Oberlin, the liberal college town that had been added to the district in 2011. Local Democratic Party activists, who said they had never previously faced Jordan at a town hall, cleared their mornings to come by.
They were joined by people who said they had simply seen a listing for the event in the local news. Emily Fisher, a 26-year-old from Lima — an hour away — came with her parents, who had been taking care of her as a degenerative disorder began limiting her eyesight.
“I couldn’t afford treatment without the Affordable Care Act,” she said. “I want to know, how are we going to be paying for it if they get rid of that? Do the benefits just run out?”
Like Fisher, most of the town hall attendees wanted to hear Jordan defend his plan for the Affordable Care Act — a bill, introduced last week, to repeal the law and replace most of its newly guaranteed coverage with health savings accounts.
“If they repeal it, they better replace it,” said Joan Worthen, 69. “I don’t think HSAs could replace it all.”
Away from Marion, similar protests had been breaking out in town squares and outside of whatever events members of Congress were holding. There were holiday-themed #NotMyPresident rallies in big cities; over the weekend, there were surging crowds when Rep. Tom Reed (R-N.Y.) and Rep. Mark Sanford (R-S.C.) held public town halls in their districts.
Jordan’s district, a sickle-shaped strip of rural Ohio, had been drawn to elect him. In 2012, it had given Barack Obama just 42 percent of the vote; last year, just 31 percent of its voters had backed Hillary Clinton. In interviews Sunday and Monday, Jordan’s critics in the district conceded that he was unlikely to lose.
“The only way that guy’s going to lose is if someone runs even further to his right” in a Republican primary race, said Mike Thomas, 73, a Democratic activist and city council member.
That gave the congressman plenty of running room. Before arriving at the town hall, he reminisced fondly about the candidate forum he’d attended in Oberlin, where he’d won just five votes in one precinct and hoped to win six. When he spotted Garrett in the crowd, brandishing a megaphone, he called her “my favorite opponent” and smiled through her question.
“What we’re concerned about is when the ACA is replaced, that people are going to be able to afford it,” Garrett said.
“Exactly. That’s what we’re for,” Jordan insisted.
“If you have access, but you can’t afford it, it’s not access,” said Garrett. “It’s denial.”
“You know what you just described, Janet? You just described the situation we have right now under the ACA. People can’t afford it now. We have the Affordable Care Act. I’m surprised to see you on my side.”
The asymmetry of the event allowed Jordan to navigate more than a dozen similar questions. He was using a mic and standing behind a silent, focused police officer; the members of the crowd could only shout and hope to be noticed. Asked about climate change, he said he, too, was concerned about the planet’s future but would not bankrupt people with high energy bills. Asked when he would support a congressional probe of Russian involvement in the 2016 presidential election, Jordan cited his time on the Select Committee on Benghazi, empaneled “two years after that horrible day,” to say that critics needed to wait for the rest of Congress to investigate allegations.
Occasionally, the district’s progressives were also talked over by a small group of conservatives who resented the treatment Jordan was getting. Several held signs from the Pro-Life Action League, demanding that Jordan end federal funding for Planned Parenthood, which he was more than happy to do.
At one point, they offered Jordan a lifeline. Thomas, the city council member, asked Jordan whether the repeal of the Affordable Care Act — which would halt the Medicaid expansion that Ohio, under Gov. John Kasich (R), had welcomed — would affect the city’s Center Street Community Clinic.
“We got some Planned Parenthood signs here — one thing I’ve been very clear on is not giving any of your tax dollars to Planned Parenthood,” Jordan said.
The antiabortion protesters cheered. “Save the babies!” said a person near the stage. “Save the babies! Save the babies!”
Thomas left the town hall muttering that his question had not really gotten an answer. Inside the Harding home, as he cycled through media interviews, Jordan said he was “pretty sure” that redirecting Planned Parenthood funds would not close the funding gap. (About $500 million goes to Planned Parenthood annually; the Medicaid expansion was $70 billion.)
“Those community clinics do a very good job, certainly better than the Planned Parenthood clinics,” Jordan said. “If we’re going to put additional dollars into federal clinics, like money directed toward the opioid epidemic, the money’s going to come from somewhere else.”
To Jordan, the solution was going to come from entitlement reform. That was not an answer that the crowd outside was prepared to accept. As he exited the Harding house, about 20 of the protesters walked to a nearby library, to vent and strategize.
Andrew Mackey, 32, leaned on his cane as he described the Parkinson’s disease that had led him to leave his job but was manageable with his wife’s health plan through the Affordable Care Act. To try to save it, he had decided to run for Congress, against Jim Jordan.