Nothing Rep. Leonard Lance said was going over well. Constituents gathered at a town hall in Branchburg, NJ Feb. 22 weren’t buying the Republican Congressman’s answers to questions about health care reform, or the environment, or financial regulation. Each time he acknowledged he was skeptical of President Trump’s ties to Russia, the packed crowd roared back: “What are you going to do about it?”
Lance was elected in 2008, but Ed Marceski said the event was the first time he felt the need to confront his representative. Wearing a T-shirt with the word “Resist,” Marceski, who voted for Hillary Clinton, said Trump’s election had energized him. “I’m 61 years old, and this is the first time we’ve done something like this,” Marceski said. “It won’t be the last.”
Lance is one of a wave of Republican senators and representatives who have been met by vocal crowds at events held in their district during this week’s congressional recess, a groundswell that has led some to see a left wing echo of the outrage that propelled the Tea Party. Mobilized by their concern over the GOP’s promise to repeal the Affordable Care Act, as well as questions about Trump’s immigration policies and his ties to Russia, protesters have confronted Rep. Jason Chaffetz in Utah, Rep. Mark Sanford in South Carolina, Rep. Scott Taylor in Virginia, Rep. Jim Jordan in Ohio, and Sen. Tom Cotton in Arkansas. Support for the ACA has grown since the threat of repeal, with 48% of Americans saying they favor the law compared to 42% who oppose it, according to a Kaiser Health Tracking Poll released Feb. 24. The approval level is the highest since Kaiser began the poll in 2010.
In Iowa, Anna Plank drove an hour and a half to confront Senator Joni Ernst. “People were yelling in the hallway, people were chanting ‘do your job,'” Plank said after the veterans’ event in Maquoketa. “We don’t feel heard, we don’t feel listened to,” Plank said. “It doesn’t feel like this country this was meant to be.”
A spokesperson for Ernst says the senator “believes it’s critical that she hears from folks across the state directly,” and said that Ernst holds 99 county tours in her state every year, including three public events last month.
Plank is an organizer of Indivisible Iowa, one of hundreds of grassroots organizations that have sprung up around the country in opposition to Trump’s policies and GOP policy planks like the repeal of the ACA. Indivisible started as an online how-to guide for citizens to effectively pressure their representatives, written by former congressional staffers who witnessed the rise of the Tea Party in 2009. In the months since the election, Indivisible has morphed into an organizing engine for the Trump opposition, pumping energy and information into local resistance efforts.
White House officials have described the anti-Trump protests as “astro-turf,” coordinated national efforts masquerading as grassroots pushback. Trump dismissed the boisterous town halls as “so-called angry crowds” and suggested on Twitter that they were “planned by liberal activists.” White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer called the protesters a “small, loud group of people” on Wednesday, adding that “just because they’re loud doesn’t mean that there are many.”
It’s difficult to tell exactly how many people are involved with the protests, but they have been building momentum. Indivisible has more than 5,000 verified groups, and 678 registered events with more than 12,000 RSVPs. The website has been viewed more than 15.5 million times since the election, and the Indivisible Guide has been viewed 2 million times on the site, according to the group’s organizers. All of the Indivisible organizers interviewed by TIME in four states say they are first-time organizers, new to political activism, and are not being paid.
“I wish I was being paid,” says Plank, an elementary school teacher currently raising her daughters full time, adding that she was so angry with Trump and Ernst that she didn’t need a financial incentive. “They could pay me to not show up.”
In Tennessee, local constituents confronted Republican Rep. Marsha Blackburn during a town hall meeting Tuesday, demanding answers about health care and Trump’s ties to Russia. “A lot of our questions were followed by ‘I’ll look into it,'” says Michelle Bewley, 36, who helped organize the Indivisible group in Blackburn’s district, a stretch of Middle Tennessee that includes some of Nashville’s wealthiest suburbs. “We didn’t get a lot of clear answers on any of our questions.”
Bewley is a parent, adjunct professor, volunteer and first-time political organizer. When her Indivisible group first started shortly after the election, they had a handful of members. Now, she says they have more than 400 people involved and organize multiple events a week.
“As an individual, if I’m just one person voicing my opinion, I’m not going to get heard,” she says. “But if we have 100 people voicing the same concerns, it’s gonna be heard.”
It’s too early to know if this outrage will be sustained, let alone if it can change outcomes in Congress. But it is already forcing many Republicans to recalibrate their outreach efforts.
Of the 59 Republican members of Congress targeted as vulnerable by the DCCC in 2018 elections, only 19 held any sort of constituent event this week, according to a running tally compiled by the TownHallProject. Of those, 17 were “empty chair” town halls, tele-town halls (where constituents can call in their questions) or appearances by staff instead of the elected officials.
Some Republicans who did show up to meet their constituents said the confrontations turned into productive dialogue. In South Carolina, Sanford lingered to talk to constituents after a boisterous town hall meeting on Saturday. “Nobody drives out of their way to go to a town hall just to score points,” Sanford said. “Let’s get to the bottom of this.”
Sanford and Senator Rand Paul are co-sponsoring a health care replacement bill that would allow insurers to sell a wider range of policies (including some with lower premiums but limited benefits), allow citizens to sock away more money in tax-free health-care savings accounts, and allow those with pre-existing conditions to keep their coverage as long as they had continuous coverage. The bill, which was endorsed by the House Freedom Caucus earlier this month, turns up the pressure on House Republicans to repeal the ACA. But Sanford said that speaking with some of the attendees caused him to “look more deeply” at the way the bill would treat pre-existing conditions.
“There’s a degree of directness that I haven’t really seen before,” he said. “I’ve seen pieces of it, but not with such energy.”
For Republican members of Congress who rode the Tea Party wave to Washington, the local resistance movement created a sense of deja vu–but only to a point. “The energy looks familiar,” says Rep. David Brat, who toppled then-House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in the 2014 Virginia Republican primary. But there are differences. “Over half the energy from the Tea Party was against our own party leadership, and that’s not what’s going on here,” he said.
Anti-Trump protesters have also focused some attention on Democratic representatives, with hundreds gathering in front of Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer’s New York home to challenge him to stand up to Trump.
Come Feb. 27th, Congress will be back in session and its members shielded by the relative protection of its chambers. Those who rallied at town halls say they’ll keep working, turning their attention to other forms of organizing. The New Jersey Indivisible group convenes postcard parties to write to local representatives and hosts information sessions on immigration and gerrymandering. The Arkansas Indivisible group makes daily calls to their representatives and organizes local volunteer efforts like a trail cleanup “to show our neighbors that we’re not just those people they saw on TV, we’re actually helping our community,” says Caitlynn Moses, another first-time organizer. In Iowa, Plank and her fellow Indivisible members have been throwing fake retirement parties for Ernst.
“We’re out here,” Plank says. “You may ignore us, but we’re not going away.”
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