As Republican lawmakers face rising anger from constituents at town-hall events across the country, they’re dismissing the protests as coming from a “small but vocal minority” backed by big-money liberal interests.
This week, House Oversight Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) became the latest Republican to see video of angry protesters shouting him down at an event in his hometown go viral.
Chaffetz struggled to control the crowd, which frequently booed him and erupted in chants of “do your job!” after Chaffetz was asked why his panel spent months investigating Hillary Clinton’s emails but so far hasn’t launched any probes into the Trump administration.
At meetings from California to Maine, GOP legislators have been greeted by hundreds and even thousands of angry progressives carrying signs, chanting and uploading videos of the lawmakers escaping into idling cars or facing hostile questions.
Liberals have been emboldened by the protests, believing their own version of the Tea Party movement has sprung up organically in response to President Trump and GOP majorities in Congress.
Republicans are not convinced.
House GOP conference vice chairman Doug Collins (R-Ga.) wrote in a letter to Republicans this week that they should not fear the “vocal minority” he says is “grasping for relevance in communities across the nation.”
Some, like Rep. Dave Brat (R-Va.), are blaming the protests on a group called “Indivisible,” which was started in December by a handful of former Democratic staffers on Capitol Hill.
“What I’m worried about is that the mainstream press can’t Google ‘Indivisible’ and the Soros-funded movement that is pushing all of this,” Brat told The Hill. “Indivisible’s game plan is to create chaos and humiliate public officials. The mainstream press can’t seem to do investigative journalism at all.”
Brat was referring to billionaire George Soros, whose significant financial contributions to liberal groups have made him into the nemesis of many on the right. But one of Indivisible’s founders says the group doesn’t have any connections to Soros, and Brat’s recommended Google search turned up no credible information on Indivisible’s supposed ties to the wealthy investor.
Thousands of local chapters of Indivisible have sprung up across the nation since the group launched in December. Founder Sarah Dohl told The Hill the group has no ties to Soros or any other major liberal donors.
The group started when she and Ezra Levin, both former staffers for Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-Texas), posted an online guide for how progressives can oppose the Trump agenda and successfully influence lawmakers.
The guide went viral after it was tweeted by liberal activist George Takei and former Labor secretary Robert Reich.
Dohl and Levin set up a website in December, which they say has drawn 12.4 million page views and spawned more than 6,500 local groups in the two months since. The guide has been downloaded 1.5 million times, they say.
“We’re hearing from a lot of people on the ground that this is their first time ever getting politically involved,” Dohl said. “Before this movement sprung up, a lot of them had never even called their congressman.”
“We’re looking to adopt the Tea Party’s tactics of local activism and defensive politics,” Dohl continued. “They were able to slow a popular president and grind policymaking for a Democratic super-majority to a halt. We think we can do the same thing now because Trump and this GOP Congress don’t have nearly the mandate we had.”
Conservative talkers like Sean Hannity and former Speaker Newt Gingrich have fanned the notion on the right that the protests are “Astroturf,” rather than grassroots.
The White House has taken up that line too, with press secretary Sean Spicer claiming that the protesters are being paid to harass GOP lawmakers.
Republicans say their claims that the protests don’t represent their district’s voters have merit because many of the lawmakers targeted by protesters represent Trump-friendly districts.
Trump won 47 percent of the vote in Chaffetz’s district compared to Clinton’s 23 percent.
But Chaffetz wasn’t the only GOP lawmaker to face a hostile town hall in a red district on Thursday. Angry crowds also showed up at district events with Reps. Justin Amash (R-Mich.) and House Budget Committee Chairwoman Diane Black (R-Tenn.). Video from Black’s town hall of a teacher defending ObamaCare’s individual insurance mandate went viral, attracting attention on social media and CNN.
Seventy-two percent of voters went for Trump in Black’s central Tennessee district. And Trump beat Clinton by nine points in Amash’s Grand Rapids-area district in Michigan.
“Where are these people coming from? They’re not coming from areas where they’ll vote,” one GOP campaign operative told The Hill. “All you’re seeing is an organized effort from these local groups under the umbrella of Indivisible and they’re casting wide nets to generate this support. When they show up at Chaffetz’s town-hall, they’re inviting people from all over Utah and even from Colorado to turn it into a show.”
An Indivisible leader from the 6th Congressional District in Illinois, where some 400 turned out to protest Rep. Pete Roskam (R-Ill.) this week, disputed that characterization.
“Wholly untrue,” said the leader, who is new to the political scene and requested anonymity. “None of us are savvy enough to organize nationally or bring friends in from out of state to stand in 30 degree weather and hold signs. That’s ridiculous. They’re using that narrative to dismiss us. Everyone I talked to at our rally was from this district.”
Rep. Tom McClintock (R-Calif.), who had to be whisked away from an event in Roseville by the police, said he believes the protests are a mix of national coordination and local activism.
However, he warned that Republicans shouldn’t underestimate the movement.
“Democrats made a big mistake by not taking the Tea Party seriously,” he said in an email. “Both movements are a reminder that in the end, we will be judged on whether the vast majority of Americans believe we have improved the health care system for them and their families.”
Tim Phillips, the president of the conservative grassroots group Americans for Prosperity, which was at the forefront of the Tea Party movement, said he doesn’t think the protests are “Astroturf.”
But he said Republicans have triumphed under these conditions before, pointing to the massive protests that shut down the Wisconsin statehouse amid Gov. Scott Walker’s actions to undermine the labor movement in the state.
“They can mobilize hundreds of millions of dollars, the left has a massive operation,” Phillips said. “Anyone who expects it to be easy hasn’t been paying attention. So of course they’ll put thousands of people out there, if they don’t it’s malpractice on their part. In no way are we underestimating that… but we’ve pushed through this before.”
— Scott Wong contributed