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Five takeaways from the Republican town halls
It’s hard to see any of these town hall protests happening if any other Republican other than Trump was in the White House.
Merlee Harison said she simply would not have been out if Trump was not in office, as she stood in line with close to 2,000 others waiting to get into Cotton’s town hall.
But Harison also said her anger extended past Trump to include Cotton, because she views Trump as a “fog screen” for Republicans trying to push their priorities.
“I think most people understand Trump — know what he is, know what he isn’t. I’m here because I’m concerned about the Republicans who now think they have a mandate to do whatever they pleased,” said Harison, 80, of Fayetteville, Arkansas. “You don’t see this kind of thing when everybody is happy.”
Cotton did not directly say Wednesday evening whether he blamed Trump for the surprising turnout, but he laughed when asked if the town would be as crowded if Marco Rubio had won the White House.
“That’s fine, they can be angry with me, happy with me, I still serve them no matter what they feel about what I’m doing. I’m here to try to answer the questions as best I can and also to hear from them, so I’m looking forward to this evening and hope they are, as well,” Cotton told CNN.
For now, Trump is to the left what Obama was to the right eight years ago. It’s even led some liberals to say they now empathize with tea partiers.
Sanjay Rajput, a Democrat who attended Virginia Rep. Dave Brat’s town hall Tuesday, agreed with the notion that the highly charged environment at many town halls now resembles the tea party influence over town halls six years ago, saying, “if it worked for them, it should work for us.”
“If I could, I’d go up to a tea party person right now and apologize for accusing them of being paid because that’s what I did,” he added. “Nobody’s paying me. I’m standing up for what I believe.”
Lawmakers who grin and bear it do best
Some Republicans — including Trump — have reacted to the sometimes-rowdy town hall crowds by suggesting they are paid protesters.
The so-called angry crowds in home districts of some Republicans are actually, in numerous cases, planned out by liberal activists. Sad!
Contrast that against the Republicans who refused to have town halls.
Protesters crashed Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s fundraiser for a Kentucky business group Tuesday. A mock, empty seat town hall targeting House Speaker Paul Ryan was held in Wisconsin because he declined to hold any town halls this break. And protesters have been trying to crash other Republican fundraisers — an Ohio group almost made it into one held by Sen. Rob Portman Wednesday night.
The Republicans who have gone halfway, attempting to control the fury, have met with similar backlash. Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst ducked out the back of her public meeting after attempting to keep questions limited to selected veterans in the crowd. Rep. Jim Jordan, an Ohio Republican, attempted to stick to his President’s Day plans Monday, but a crowd of roughly 200 protesters showed up and forced him to take their questions for 45 minutes.
How long will the anger last?
After only one month in to the new administration, it would be easy to dismiss the protests as leftover angst from the election — and that anger clearly fuels much of it. But the protests have grown to look more like a Democratic tea party and less like the second version of Occupy Wall Street, which flared up but fizzled without any sustained fuel.
New actions from the White House, such as repealing Obama administration protections for transgender students, will only keep the left engaged.
While the people who attend town halls may be locals, there are still professional organizers and scores of out-of-work Democratic staffers looking to strike back at Trump and Republicans. Leaders from the Indivisible group are former congressional staffers who have been advising local Indivisible chapters on how to organize and then confront their lawmakers.
The founder of Ozark Indivisible, Caitlynn Moses, started with the group’s guidebook a little over a month ago, and by Wednesday night she had led 2,000 people to confront Cotton. Cotton even arranged to meet in person with Moses before the event, then invited her on stage to ask the first question.
The big caveat is whether any of the energy will carry into the 2018 elections the same way it did for tea partiers and Republicans in 2010. This past week has been one recess, and then lawmakers head back to the Capitol, away from protesters. Tea party activists had the entire summer after House Democrats passed Obamacare to flood their town halls.
The first explosive town hall caught Rep. Jason Chaffetz offguard in deep-red Utah, two weeks ago, and put Republicans on guard heading into this week.
It’s not clear how hot the fire will burn when the lawmakers are back in Washington.
CNN’s Ashley Killough, Eric Bradner, Eli Watkins, Jeanne Sahadi and Jordan Malter contributed to this report.