GOP lessons from the latest round of brutal town halls

BLACKSTONE, Va. — An overflow crowd here was eager to take on Rep. Dave Brat, the conservative Republican who just weeks earlier needled liberal protesters in his district and groused about all the women “in my grill” over GOP plans to repeal and replace Obamacare.

But with a plain-spoken approach — and a format that didn’t revolve around live-fire questions from the combative crowd — Brat offered his colleagues a potential blueprint for defusing tense constituent town halls that have bedeviled his Republican colleagues as they’ve been swarmed by protesters.

As a restive crowd grew outside the Blackstone Herb Cottage, Brat’s staff collected constituents’ questions on index cards and handed them to the local mayor, William Coleburn.

Rather than field questions directly from constituents, Coleburn read their submitted queries aloud, and then Brat went to work. He plowed through his message, grinding through a hail of boos and heckling from the crowd but never veering from his bottom line: regulations are burdening the economy, Obamacare is failing — and tax reform is slated for April.

In the end, he walked away smiling.

“I’m having fun,” the conservative Republican said as the crowd of hundreds hurled insults. “I like having debates.”

Brat’s tactic prevented him from coming face to face with Ginny Bonner of Henrico, who said five of her six immediate family members have pre-existing conditions, including a son with long-term asthma and a daughter recently diagnosed with thyroid cancer.

“She would be uninsurable” without Obamacare, Bonner said in an interview.

Brat, an economist who often highlights his Ph.D. pedigree, knows he doesn’t have much of a numbers problem in his district, where he won 58 percent of the vote in November. Small pockets of supporters, some donning “Brat Pack” shirts, joined the town hall and led a small cheering section before and after his event.”

“I think this was a mob. It wasn’t a crowd genuinely interested in political discourse,” said Richard Roberts, a Culpeper resident who has supported Brat since his first run in 2014, of the crowd of protesters. He urged Brat to take heart that the bulk of his district doesn’t share the liberal displeasure that was on display on Tuesday night.

His town hall, like many other GOP events around the country in recent weeks, had become a target for liberal activists, including the newly formed Indivisible, which has generated huge turnouts at lawmaker events. In some respects, liberals are attempting to recreate the tea party fervor that swept Republicans into control of Congress in 2010. Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) saw a similarly hostile crowd at her Tennessee event on Tuesday as well.

“We’ve been talking about this issue since 2010,” Blackburn said as constituents pressed for more details on the as-yet-unwritten Republican plan to replace Obamacare. “We have been working on this nonstop. … Our goal is that each and every person will have access to affordable health care.”

In Iowa, Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley got an earful from more than 100 constituents who vented their opposition to Trump’s agendas well, packing town halls to decry his support for repealing Obamacare. Chris Petersen, a pig farmer, even delivered a gift for Grassley: Extra Strength Tums.

“You’re going to need them in the next few years,” said Petersen, 62, a self-described progressive Democrat with insulin-dependent diabetes. “People are disappointed.”

And in Mariposa, California, Republican Rep. Tom McClintock faced more than 600 people, many of them shouting and waving protest signs. McClintock said he supported withholding federal funds from sanctuary cities — and possibly his own state — and rolling back environmental regulations that are “choking off the American economy.” And over and over, McClintock — who a few weeks ago was escorted by police out of a town hall — clashed with protesters over repealing Obamacare.

Recent elections, McClintock said, have given the GOP a “very clear mandate” to repeal the Affordable Care Act, to which protesters yelled, “Show us the plan!” for its replacement.

In Blackstone, though, protesters seemed determined not to let Brat deliver an uninterrupted answer. They waved red placards every time Brat said something they disagreed with, and several detractors played “Brat Bingo,” tallying up common refrains used by the lawmaker in his constituent meetings. Some shouted at him to stop hawking books, when he mentioned his writings a few times. Others accused him of lying or being misinformed when he decried Planned Parenthood and refused to expound on the science of climate change.

Coleburn repeatedly pleaded with the crowd to remain quiet so Brat could finish his answers, and a few times, Brat seemed flustered by the persistent harrying.

“I’m in the middle of answering, but I kind of lose my focus when everyone’s yelling ‘answer the question,’” he scolded.

In a lighter moment, he asked if anyone in the crowd knew a good joke. “You!” several shouted back. In another bizarre moment during a discussion of religious freedom and Judeo-Christian values, a protester wondered aloud whether Brat — who at one point raised ancient Greek philosophy — worshiped Zeus. He ignored the barb.

A Brat spokeswoman said the decision to allow the mayor to read questions off note cards, rather than take them directly from constituents was meant to get to as many questions as possible.

“Our staff just collected the cards and let the mayor pick and read them at his discretion,” said the spokeswoman.

And many of the questions were pointed and critical, seeking Brat’s views on potential collusion between Trump and Russia (he supports a congressional investigation), wondering where Brat gets his daily news (everywhere), and whether he denies climate change. (No. “Climate changes all the time.”)

Brat leaned heavily on his persona as an anti-establishment stalwart to help find common cause with a crowd that was virulently anti-Trump as well.

“I took on my own leadership over the last two years on fiscal responsibility,” he noted at one point. He also drew cheers when he pledged to look into a provision that House Democrats sought to use to force Trump to release his tax returns. When some constituents shouted at Brat for noting he has several friends who are bankers, Brat noted that he isn’t exactly a darling of Wall Street.

“If you missed the memo, I raised like $150,000 for my race and beat someone with $5 million,” he said, referring to his upset win over then-House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in a Republican primary in 2014.

And he seemed to relish infuriating his sharpest critics, at times comparing their brusque tactics to Trump himself.

“Some of you are as boisterous as Trump,” he said, as he prepared to exit the event. “But I loved every minute of it.”

Jennifer Haberkorn, Paul Demko and David Siders contributed to this report.

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