YORKTOWN, Va. — The raucous anti-Trump movement poured into this historic town Tuesday evening for a 75-minute showdown with a freshman Republican congressman, peppering him with questions on every key national news item.
Questioners in the audience of roughly 750 people pressed Rep. Scott W. Taylor (Va.), a former state lawmaker and Navy SEAL, on President Trump’s connections to Russia and the specifics of what pieces of the Affordable Care Act he wants to keep. They rained down a chorus of boos when he said he opposes federal funding for Planned Parenthood.
Yet by the end of the session, Taylor felt that he had weathered the evening’s storm, which was a more civil event than a boisterous town hall meeting the previous evening down the road in Virginia Beach, where he had drawn a crowd of 800.
“This was a great audience tonight,” Taylor, 37, said afterward.
Whether his optimism is warranted is a key question for both Republicans and Democrats as they navigate a wave of anti-Trump hostility in dozens of congressional town hall gatherings nationwide this week.
If Democrats hope to win back control of the House and the Senate, they must keep pressure on Republicans and channel the energy of these hostile crowds into a political movement that will vote in next year’s midterm elections.
And if Republicans hope to survive, as Taylor thinks he did Tuesday, they must figure out how to work with Trump while navigating constituent anger about his more controversial policies, including a rocky attempt to repeal the Affordable Care Act and an immigration ban that has been blocked by federal courts.
They also must continue to venture out into the storm and put themselves in front of their constituents to explain what they’re trying to do in Washington.
It’s a particularly acute issue here in the cradle of America’s birth, where the British surrendered to Gen. George Washington in 1781, and where, down the road along the James River, the first English settlers arrived in 1607.
Virginia’s 2nd Congressional District should be competitive; Trump won here by a mere 3.4 percentage points, similar to Republican nominees Mitt Romney in 2012 and John McCain in 2008. But the local Democrats fielded a community activist who spent a fraction of what Taylor spent, and Taylor won by an astounding 23 percentage points.
He’s one of 10 Republicans who hold seats that Trump won by less than four percentage points. These seats, along with the 23 seats held by the House GOP in districts that went for Hillary Clinton, form an initial target list for Democrats. But it won’tbe easy: Republicans won most of those 33 districts by overwhelming margins against underwhelming Democrats.
That’s why Josh Stanfield, 30, was at Tuesday’s event at York High School, looking for new blood for the local Democratic Party. Stanfield runs a PAC called Activate Virginia and is recruiting candidates to run in Virginia’s legislative races this fall, hoping new grass-roots supporters will do more than just heckle their congressman at a town hall meeting.
“They’re not flooding the [Democratic] committees,” Stanfield said of the faces in the crowd. He wants to sign them up to work on legislative races and this year’s gubernatorial contest — as well as congressional races next year and beyond, when he expects new census numbers to produce a congressional map that is more favorable to Democrats.
“We’ll show you how to get involved,” Stanfield explained before Taylor’s town hall event. Above all, he said there is one goal: “Get all these people to vote.”
Kim Sholtis and her daughter illustrate this conundrum. Sholtis, 45, said she and her husband, who serves in the Air Force at nearby Joint Base Langley-Eustis, are registered to vote in his home town outside Harrisburg, Pa., under laws designed to help military members. They have not been engaged in local politics, but that changed after Sholtis woke up her daughter the morning of the election to tell her Trump had won.
“I thought she was joking,” Elizabeth Sholtis, 17, recalled.
Neither mother nor daughter could recall anything about Taylor’s race in 2016. But they say they will be more engaged in 2018, when Elizabeth Sholtis will be eligible to vote. She plans to oppose anyone on Trump’s side.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is determined not to repeat last year’s mistake. It has hired a full-time staff member to work in the Tidewater region to help with recruiting and activism.
Taylor, aware that the next election will be different, scheduled three straight evenings of town hall meetings this week to help his constituents get to know their new congressman. Before taking questions Tuesday, he counseled the audience to avoid chanting and shouting so that everyone could be heard.
“We’ve got to remain calm. Calm is contagious,” Taylor said.
He even suggested that local media coverage of Monday’s meeting had scared away some of his conservative supporters.
He then took more than 25 questions that ran the gamut: the effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act, Trump’s rhetorical assault on the media, his own views on the deportation of undocumented immigrants. Although the crowd cheered and jeered at times, the questions, picked randomly by the hosts, were thoughtful and sometimes peppered with personal family anecdotes about struggles.
Taylor distanced himself from Trump’s most controversial positions. He dismissed as impractical building a wall along the entire U.S.-Mexico border. He said Trump was “100 percent” wrong to call the media an “enemy of the American people.” He aligned himself on Russia policy with traditional hawks such as House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.), Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Homeland Security Secretary John F. Kelly.
“I’m with Ryan. I’m with Mattis. I’m with Kelly,” he said, drawing bipartisan cheers while pointedly leaving Trump off that list.
Taylor is a fairly doctrinaire conservative. He wants to devolve much of Medicaid to the states. He eagerly supports repealing the Affordable Care Act. He views the Dodd-Frank Act, which regulates Wall Street, as crippling to business interests. And he’s willing to support adding thousands of new border agents if Kelly recommends doing so.
Those positions drew the rowdiest opposition from an overwhelmingly anti-Trump crowd, but they are positions that Republicans have long held while repeatedly winning elections. One question is whether they can continue to do so if Trump comes to be associated with that traditional GOP policy platform while also remaining unpopular. And one challenge for Republicans is to distance themselves from Trump’s controversies, which have less to do with policy and often relate to personal behavior and business dealings, to allow voters to differentiate between them and Trump.
Taylor seemed to understand that Tuesday. And by the end of the night, he had found at least one unlikely ally, Delphia Hedgepeth, 83, a Democrat who went to Washington last month for the Women’s March. She thanked him for showing up and facing the heat.
“He was willing to take the questions,” Hedgepeth said. “He didn’t make promises that he couldn’t fulfill.”