Republicans take evasive maneuvers to avoid feisty town halls

With President Trump’s White House mired in controversy and his party’s legislative agenda initially stalled as a result, congressional Republicans are discovering a new outlet for their creative energies as they head home for next week’s recess: avoiding their constituents.

As many observers have noted, rank-and-file progressives have recently taken a page from the tea party’s playbook, and begun to disrupt in-person town-hall events with their representatives, booing Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, and prompting police to escort Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Calif., to his car.

But as the opposition has grown more organized, Republicans have responded in kind, developing an elaborate array of evasive maneuvers to help them dodge unsympathetic constituents altogether. The upshot has been a game of democratic cat-and-mouse that would seem cartoonish if less serious matters were at stake.

Take Republican Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., who represents a district located in the coastal suburbs north of San Diego.

By any measure, Issa is one of the most endangered congressmen in the country. His state voted for Hillary Clinton in last year’s presidential election by nearly 30 percentage points; his district went for Clinton too (by 7 points). Only 23 other GOP members represent similarly divided districts. Of them, Issa won reelection by the slimmest margin: a mere 1,621 votes (or 0.6 points). There’s a reason, in other words, why the Cook Political Report currently rates CA-49 as the only Republican-held tossup in the country, and why both the Democratic Party and the GOP are already targeting Issa’s 2018 rematch with challenger Doug Applegate.

Since the election, Issa has said that “Washington needs to listen more [and] talk less” — himself included.

But he has consistently steered clear of listening to his constituents in person. For the past two months, local residents have been gathering outside Issa’s office in Vista, Calif., to request a town hall with the congressman; the group has swelled from a couple of dozen in December to nearly 300 this week. Each time, Issa’s staff has given them the same brushoff: that a town hall meeting would cost $50,000 — too much taxpayer money. Instead, they offered, Issa would be happy to host a town hall by telephone (which he did late last month).

The only problem with this approach? It’s just “an excuse to avoid honest communication with voters,” according to one participant.

“Almost all the callers who are let through seemed to be Republicans, and a number congratulated [Issa] on his election victory,” Mary Michel Green wrote in the Dana Point Times on Feb. 12. “The one caller who appeared to be opposed to Mr. Issa politically, someone from Dana Point, was interrupted several times by Rep. Issa in a rude, dismissive tone before he could get a sentence out.”

Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif. (Photo: Molly Riley/AP)
Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif. (Photo: Molly Riley/AP)

Unhappy with Issa’s reluctance to meet face to face, his constituents have tried to call his bluff, renting their own venue in Vista and crowdsourcing $6,000 to pay for a full-page ad in the San Diego Union-Tribune inviting Issa to attend an “Emergency Town Hall on Health Care” on Feb. 21.

Yet Issa still isn’t biting. After initially claiming that they were “still finalizing the congressman’s calendar,” his staff members now insist that he is busy that night with a “long-standing obligation” to tour a local homeless shelter.

Issa isn’t alone in wanting to sidestep confrontations with angry voters, especially of the kind that can be recorded on an iPhone and uploaded to Facebook and Twitter in seconds. Some of the GOP’s more inventive deflections, diversions and dodges so far include:

  • Publicly canceling a scheduled town-hall event because you “didn’t want to meet until all the president’s nominees were confirmed,” then showing up anyway, to talk solely to your conservative supporters, who somehow still seemed to know you would be there (Mo Brooks, R-Ala.)

  • Posting a photo from your “great town hall this morning with concerned citizens about the need for tax reform” on Facebook, despite never actually putting said event on your calendar or otherwise telling your constituents that it was happening (Jim Renacci, R-Ohio)

  • Removing all mention of your upcoming “town hall” from the host city’s municipal website and refusing to call it a town hall when questioned, insisting instead that it is a “low-key” “community meeting” with other elected officials (Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn.)

  • Refusing to denounce your “friend” when he announces that he needs “all patriots in attendance” at your next town hall “to protect” you “from any potential disruption of [your] speech,” adding that “concealed carry permit holders [are] most welcome” and shouldn’t “forget [their] ammo” (Matt Gaetz, R-Fla.)

  • Insisting that you are too “busy, busy, busy” to meet with your own constituents during the “first 100 days,” while at the same time scheduling a “special guest” appearance at another congressman’s town hall meeting 2,130 miles away (David Brat, R-Va.)

To be sure, Democrats also made themselves scarce when tea party activists were “in [their] grill” — as Brat memorably referred to his contemporary critics — back in 2009 and 2010. The New York Times reported in June 2010, “of the 255 Democrats who make up the majority in the House, only a handful held town-hall-style forums, as legislators spent last week at home in their districts.”

From 2013: Rep. Jim Renacci, R-Ohio, speaks at a town hall meeting. (Photo: Tom E. Puskar/AP)
From 2013: Rep. Jim Renacci, R-Ohio, speaks at a town-hall meeting. (Photo: Tom E. Puskar/AP)

Even so, the evasive maneuvering seems to be faster and more furious this time around, arriving in the midst of what is typically a new administration’s honeymoon period. According to LegiStorm, Republicans held 222 town halls during the first two months of the last Congress, in 2015; this year, they have scheduled only 88 — and 35 of those sessions are for a single congressman (Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Wis.)

While GOP officials are pushing for fewer in-person events and more telephone town halls, not every Republican seems to think avoidance is the smartest strategy.

“Democrats deluded themselves in 2009 by disregarding the early signs of fierce resistance to their agenda, and paid the price over and over again for their heedless high-handedness,” National Review editor Rich Lowry wrote in a recent column titled “Heed the Protests.” “Republicans shouldn’t make the same mistake.”

And despite his rowdy reception earlier this month, Utah’s Rep. Jason Chaffetz agrees.

“Of course, we’re going to continue to interact with constituents,” Chaffetz told the Salt Lake Tribune. “I believe I have a duty and a need to hear from everybody in my district.”

Even Issa has expressed interest in engaging with people who disagree with him — or at least he did in 2015.

“Politicians most often look for an easy softball,” he lamented at the time. But “members who care look for people who are contrary to their views … and, in fact, challenge that status quo.”