Ornery and outspoken, Texas Rep. Louie Gohmert isn’t the type to shy away from a political scuffle. But like many Republicans, he’s decided to stop holding in-person town halls for now — thanks to the left-wing protest machine.
A nationwide “storm-the-town-halls” strategy, organized by groups like the George Soros-funded MoveOn.org, has resulted in thousands of activists swamping Republicans at public events, creating media buzz as they shout down lawmakers and fueling comparisons to the tea party town halls of 2009.
As the events grow more rowdy, however, Mr. Gohmert and other Republicans are opting during the recess for telephonic town halls, at least “until the threat of violence at town hall meetings recedes,” he said.
“Unfortunately, at this time there are groups from the more violent strains of the leftist ideology, some even being paid, who are preying on public town halls to wreak havoc and threaten public safety,” said Mr. Gohmert in a Tuesday letter to his constituents.
The concerns are more than hypothetical. The 71-year-old district director for Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, California Republican, hit her head, fainted and was hospitalized Feb. 14 after activists with Indivisible, an new protest group, tried to force open the office door. A 2-year-old girl was also knocked down in the tussle.
A furious Mr. Rohrabacher blasted the protesters as “part of a nationwide, anti-Trump mobilization” who are “engaged in political thuggery, pure and simple.”
“In fact, they are bent on dividing the nation, defying the will of voters and undermining the legitimacy of the election,” he said in a statement. “These holier-than-thou obstructionists will be held responsible for this outrageous assault. They are exposing themselves for what they are — enemies of American self-government and democracy.”
But for Democrats who struggled for years with fired-up tea party crowds in the wake of the Affordable Care Act, this is payback time. More than a few Democrats cut back on their own public appearances in 2010 rather than brave rooms full of angry activists intent on venting.
“They didn’t just do fewer events, they would also cancel planned events with little notice,” said Taylor Budowich, executive director of the Tea Party Express in Sacramento.
Still, the anti-Trump protests have a different feel. They’re better organized: The network prodding disgruntled constituents to meetings includes established liberal operations like MoveOn, Democracy for America and Organizing for Action, as well as newcomers like Indivisible.
“These town hall victories are proof that our growing grass roots movement has all the momentum — and it’s forcing our elected representatives and the media to come to terms with the strength of the opposition to Donald Trump in this country,” said Democracy for America in a fundraising plea.
The newly formed Town Hall Project, which calls itself both nonpartisan and progressive, makes it easy by listing all Democratic and Republican events on its website.
“It’s safe to say most of our team are motivated by a desire to fight the Trump agenda,” said project spokesman Nathan Williams.
At the same time, he said, “We believe and hope this amazing wave of grass-roots action is not merely a reaction to recent election outcomes but a long overdue proactive movement of citizens demanding a greater voice in their democracy.”
It’s unlikely that the early tea party had the cash to run ads informing its supporters of town hall meetings, but the Democratic PAC Priorities USA is doing exactly that with a digital campaign targeting 12 Republicans in states won by Hillary Clinton.
“The upcoming recess week promises to provide even more scenes of grass roots activism by everyday citizens concerned about our country’s future,” Guy Cecil, chairman of Priorities USA, said in a statement to McClatchy.
The White House has dismissed the town hall mayhem as the work of professional operatives. In a Tuesday tweet Mr. Trump said the “so-called angry crowds in home districts of some Republicans are actually, in numerous cases, planned out by liberal activists. Sad!”
Other Republicans have accused the protest network of importing activists from outside the congressional district and even outside the state.
Protesters have denied allegations of professionalism at events by holding up their driver’s licenses showing their address, along with signs with messages like “I get paid zip” and chanting “We are not paid!”
What brings the protesters together is their opposition to Mr. Trump as opposed to a specific policy issue. That’s a marked difference from the tea party movement, which made reducing the size of government the cornerstone of its movement.
Some of those turning up at the protests are there to support Obamacare — Rep. Tom Reed, New York Republican, was drowned out by boos Saturday after he called for repealing it — but many activists seem mainly intent on opposing everything Mr. Trump supports, from a border wall to his Cabinet nominees.
“With the tea party, the focus was very defined. It was issue-based. It was that belief that the government has grown too big, we’re spending too much, and that’s bad,” Mr. Budowich said. “I don’t know really what their issues are. I know that they’re against the president.”
For Republicans, at least, the new wave of town hall protesters is also more worrisome. Rep. Tom McClintock, California Republican, has held more than 100 town halls, but received two weeks ago his first police escort at the insistence of the Roseville Police Department.
“The vast majority of the people attempting to attend the meeting were peaceful, decent and law-abiding folks sincerely opposed to President Trump, wanting to make their views known to their elected representative,” Mr. McClintock said in a floor speech. “But there was also a well-organized element that came to disrupt — and disrupt they did.”
Rep. Dave Brat, Virginia Republican, was booed and heckled during a Tuesday town hall in Blackstone. A crowd of more than 1,000 drowned out Rep. Jason Chaffetz, Utah Republican, at a Feb. 9 appearance in Cottonwood Heights.
“They’re welcome to come yell and scream,” Mr. Chaffetz said Tuesday on Fox Radio’s “Kilmeade & Friends” show. “I thought it was a bit over the top. I thought it was intended to bully and intimidate. But the last four elections in Utah in a row I’ve won by the widest margin of anybody playing at this level.”
Asked if most attendees were from his district, he said, “I think most are from Utah.”
Republicans opting for telephone town halls have forced protest organizers to get creative. Indivisible, which was founded by five former Democratic congressional staffers, recently listed its “Missing Members of Congress Action Plan” for protesters.
The recommendations include contacting the local media, publicizing the lawmaker’s absence and holding constituent town halls.
That’s how Colorado liberals reacted after finding no town hall on the recess schedule of Republican Sen. Cory Gardner. At a Tuesday rally outside his Denver office, several hundred chanted “Do your job” and held signs with messages like, “Where’s Cory?” and “Cory Gardner MIA.”
A Gardner impersonator wearing a black suit, gray tie and mop of brown hair drew laughs by giving disingenuous answers to questions from the crowd.
Some Republicans are undeterred. Despite last week’s experience, Mr. McClintock went forward with another town hall Tuesday in Mariposa, where the crowd was still mostly anti-Trump but less rowdy.
The worst part? Afterward, The Fresno Bee reported that four vehicles were found with slashed tires.