After Sen. Thom Tillis said he would be talking to constituents live on Facebook Wednesday, more than 200 people submitted questions — many of them pointed queries about his views on health care.
While Tillis’s office had advertised a 30-minute event, the senator ultimately appeared on camera for 11 minutes, answering eight questions read to him by a staff member.
“We have to repeal Obamacare and replace it with something that works,” said the North Carolina Republican. “What we also have to do is get through the rhetoric you’re hearing from some people. . . . Some of the mainstream media and others have pretended that there is no replace strategy — there is.”
Tillis did not acknowledge any of the follow-up questions that popped up in the comments alongside his video, including requests for more details on the GOP replacement plan. But he did avoid the sort of viral spectacle that many of his fellow lawmakers have encountered over the past week as the debate over repealing the Affordable Care Act got underway in Washington.
Seven years after unruly Democratic town halls helped stoke public outrage over the Affordable Care Act, Republicans now appear keen to avoid the kind of dust-ups capable of racking up millions of views on YouTube and ending up in a 2018 campaign commercial. Only a handful of GOP lawmakers have held or are planning to host in-person town hall meetings open to all comers — the sort of large-scale events that helped feed the original Obamacare backlash in the summer of 2009.
The Republican Congress kicked off the process of repealing the landmark health-care legislation last week. According to Legistorm, which tracks lawmakers’ events, ten GOP lawmakers have held in-person town hall meetings since Jan. 1. As of Thursday, only Rep. James F. Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.) had scheduled any future events.
That may be because such freewheeling events — especially with a hot topic like the ACA on the table — can devolve into chaos, with made-for-social-media moments brought to you by anyone with a smartphone in the audience.
Instead, lawmakers are increasingly turning to more controlled forums like telephone town halls, as well as Facebook Q&As and smaller, unpublicized personal meetings that cannot so easily be filmed.
John Feehery, a former senior House GOP leadership aide, said lawmakers need to take a “very cautious approach” when it comes to public events.
“In this day and age, real-life town halls are very dangerous for all but the most seasoned politicians,” he said. “I think John McCain can get away with it and a few others, but most should stick to office hours, really good constituent service or tele-town halls.”
That seems to be especially true as Republicans move to eliminate the 2010 health-care law that has provided roughly 20 million people with some form of coverage. The GOP has put forth principles for a replacement, but lawmakers have not settled on a detailed alternative.
Since Congress took its first steps to unwind the ACA, Republicans have been publicly confronted by constituents — generating media reports and shareable videos that have been happily circulated by Democrats eager to turn the tables on the GOP.
Rep. Mike Coffman (R-Colo.) was greeted by more than 150 people at a “one-on-one” constituent event Saturday at a library in the Denver suburbs — generating footage of chanting, singing and Coffman leaving the event out of a back door.
On Monday, Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.) — the chairwoman of the House Republican Conference — encountered shouts of “save our health care” as she addressed a Martin Luther King Jr. Day event in her district.
And during a nationally televised town hall event last week, an Arizona cancer survivor told House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) that because of the Obama health-care reforms, “I’m standing here today alive.”
“Why would you repeal the Affordable Care Act without a replacement?” the man, Jeff Jeans, asked Ryan.
Said Ryan, “Without getting into all of the legislative mumbo-jumbo, we want to do this at the same time and, in some cases, in the same bill.”
Dan Keylin, Tillis’s communications director, said the senator has used Facebook events and telephone town halls for months and that the recent health-care debate hasn’t caused him to change the way he interacts with voters. Questions that Tillis did not answer personally Wednesday will be answered by staff, he said.
“The feedback we receive has been overwhelmingly positive,” Keylin said.
The public remains closely divided on Obamacare. A Washington Post-ABC poll conducted from Jan. 12 to 15 found 46 percent supported repealing the law, while 47 percent opposed it.
Republicans have plenty of constituents who stand to be affected by changes to the ACA: According to a recent analysis by the Kaiser Family Foundation, Republican districts combined contain 6.3 million Obama marketplace enrollees versus the 5.2 million in Democratic districts. Millions more are covered under the expansion of Medicaid.
Several lawmakers surveyed in recent days acknowledged a major uptick in constituent engagement on health care, whether through phone calls, social media postings or in-person contacts.
“I’m getting a lot of calls,” said Rep. Tom MacArthur (R-N.J.), one of nine Republicans who voted against a key measure kicking off the repeal push last week. “What I’m hearing from people is, they’re much more concerned about the substance of the fix than the timing of the fix. We didn’t get here overnight, and I think people realize it may take a little time to fix it and get it right.”
Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.), who represents a state where Donald Trump won with 69 percent of the vote, said his constituents are “scared to death.”
“I’ve got miners who could lose their black lung [coverage]. I’ve got people in treatment now who never had treatment before for opiate addiction,” he said.
But most said their interactions with constituents had only encouraged them to repeal and replace Obamacare, and some criticized those who have sought to confront lawmakers about possible changes to the law.
Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), who represents a state where an estimated 75,000 residents are covered through the Obamacare marketplace, said some activists were spreading “misinformation” about Republicans’ intentions.
“I think it’s really unfortunate that some of these paid activists are scaring people about what’s going to happen,” said Collins, who has counseled her GOP colleagues to move carefully.
Few, however, said they had definite plans to hold widely publicized public events in their districts.
Instead, they emphasized meetings with smaller groups of constituents, social media outreach and, increasingly, telephone town halls, where thousands of constituents can dial in or be called directly for a chance to hear a lawmaker take their questions, one at a time.
“We definitely have seen an uptick in the last month or so,” said Shaun Thompson, chief government, public and client affairs officer for Tele-Town Hall LLC, a leading vendor that has worked with more than 100 members of both parties.
Most members see the phone events as a complement, not a substitute, to traditional town hall meetings, Thompson said, and have no qualms about taking difficult questions: “They want to make sure all the hot-button issues are discussed.”
But he acknowledged that the nature of such events — where only one constituent speaks at a time, and the operator can mute a disruptive questioner — can prevent the kind of dramatic confrontations that rocket around the media and the Internet.
Rep. Richard Hudson (R-N.C.) said he had 12,000 constituents on a telephone town hall earlier this month — up about 25 percent from previous similar events.
“There is going to be a new health reform, and we want to get it right, so I want your feedback,” he said. “That’s my message.”
Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.), representing a state where more than 50,000 residents have enrolled through the exchanges, hosted more than 24,000 constituents on a Jan. 10 telephone town hall. Daines polled the callers on whether they “support repealing Obamacare;” 80 percent said yes, according to his office.
For many GOP lawmakers who were elected in the past six years, they insist there is little they could hear at any town hall meeting that would weaken their resolve on health care.
Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.), who was elected to the House in the 2010 tea party wave and to the Senate in the 2014 GOP midterm sweep, said activists are wasting their time.
“We’re going to keep moving forward, because this is what most of us were elected to do,” he said. “The frustrating thing for me is, there are a lot of folks peddling a lot of fear right now . . . and they have no idea what the next proposal is, so they’re just assuming the worst and encouraging people that are cancer patients and diabetics to start calling us.”
But Democrats are warning that the GOP ignores its constituents at their peril. Manchin said that most of the West Virginia residents who have gained health care under the ACA probably voted for Donald Trump.
“They don’t know how they got their health care,” he said. “They’re going to know how they lost it, I guarantee you that.”
Elise Viebeck contributed to this report.