DENVER (AP) — Republicans who benefited from rowdy town halls six years ago and harnessed a wave of discontent with Democrats to win seats in Congress are learning a hard lesson this week as they return home: The left is happy to return the favor.
From Maine to Montana, Democrats and their allies are spending this short congressional recess protesting elected Republican politicians who for the most part are trying to avoid the events that often turn into shouting matches.
Just like the tea party sympathizers who vented against Democrats and President Barack Obama, the new left and left-leaning protesters are taking out their ire on Republicans and their links to President Donald Trump.
In Denver this week, the activists targeted Republican Sen. Cory Gardner — denouncing him as inaccessible and beaming a picture of him fashioned into a “Wanted” poster to a wall of the Denver Art Museum while protesting Trump’s plans to boost energy production on public lands.
Gardner “is supposed to represent us, but where is he?” said Emma Spett, a 22-year-old environmental activist from Denver who says she’s “terrified” of environmental policy changes backed by Trump.
Gardner defeated a Democrat in 2010, and used impromptu town hall meetings heavily attended by tea party members in his campaign to rail against Obama’s Affordable Health Care Act and incumbent congressional representatives he labeled as out of touch with voters.
Now an incumbent who doesn’t face re-election until 2020, Gardner has no town halls scheduled on his calendar. Experts say it’s a public appearance avoidance tactic that constituents detest but a way for incumbents to avoid being berated in widely publicized local events.
“If you’re there at a town hall meeting and there’s hundreds of people there yelling at you, it’s going to be a media event,” said Seth Masket, a political scientist at the University of Denver “They’re calculating that the bad press they’re going to get from not having a town hall is not going to be as bad as that.”
In Montana this week, Republican Sen. Steve Daines got waylaid with boos and jeers from hundreds of protesters just for rescheduling an appearance before state lawmakers Helena from Tuesday to Wednesday.
“What a coward!” said Katherine Haque-Hausrath, a protest organizer who demanded he meet with constituents. “If he doesn’t listen to us now, he can listen to us in 2020 in the election.”
And in Maine, opponents of Republican Sen. Susan Collins decided to hold their own town meetings on her behalf because she had none scheduled. They aired them on Facebook, denouncing Collins as aloof.
Suburban Chicago Republican Rep. Peter Roskam didn’t hold a town hall in public on Monday, deciding instead to interact with voters in a conference call. About 18,000 callers participated, and Roskam said during the call that police officers recommended he depart from an earlier event through a back door because hundreds of protesters had gathered outside.
Asked why he was not meeting with constituents during his trip home, Roskam responded that town halls are not productive.
“People come in, and they get angry and they hold placards and they shout at one another and they feel bad and they escalate and they end up being a disaster,” Roskam said in remarks published by The Chicago Tribune (http://trib.in/2kTkCvH ).
And Texas Rep. Louie Gohmert announced he decided to hold telephone town halls because groups from what he called “violent strains of the leftist ideology…are preying on public town halls to wreak havoc and threaten public safety.”
In Arizona this week, Democrats organized what they billed as a “search party” to look for Republican Sen. Jeff Flake, taking their protest to the front yard of his house in suburban Phoenix. He was meeting with patients at Phoenix Children’s Hospital at the time and had no town hall meetings scheduled this week.
Back in Colorado, a Republican elected during the tea-party wave of 2010 traveled to Germany this week to attend the Munich Security Conference instead of returning home to his sprawling district about the size of Arkansas that includes the ski resort towns of Aspen and Telluride plus conservative ranching and mining towns. Some constituents of Rep. Scott Tipton were outraged.
“He has every right to be in Congress and he has every right to support President Trump. But if he’s going to do that, he needs to tell us why and listen to our concerns,” said Dylan Thomas, a Democrat from the small town of Eagle.
But the Republicans accused of going into hiding are getting some sympathy — from Democrats they defeated, including former Colorado Rep. Betsy Markey.
Back in 2010, she held town hall meetings focusing on health care only to be greeted by a deluge of conservative protesters who showed up waving yellow “Don’t Tread on Me” flags.
“They were pretty rowdy,” Markey recalled with a chuckle.
Republicans who played their campaigns to take advantage of the tea party movement’s populist appeal now need to learn to take what was dished out to the Democrats.
“That’s why you were elected, to represent the people. You come back on weekends, you come back on breaks, and you talk to people — even if they don’t like what you’re doing,” Markey said.
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