Town Hall Protests Continue, But Will It Translate Into Election Results?

Members of Congress and the Senate are once again facing down angry constituents, but it's unclear whether it will translate into anything substantial in 2018.

Congress is out of session this week for the President’s Day holiday, which Congress routinely expands into an extended week so that members can work back in their districts, and Republicans continue to face voters upset over the Obamacare debate and the policies of the Trump Administration:

FAIRVIEW, Tenn. — Representative Marsha Blackburn may have expected to draw a friendly crowd by scheduling a town hall-style meeting in a Tennessee community that had voted overwhelmingly for President Trump, but she instead faced a hurricane-strength blast of disapproval on Tuesday.

Ms. Blackburn, an eight-term Republican, was sharply questioned about a wide range of issues that have unsettled Mr. Trump’s first month in office, including health care, the environment, education and the president’s links to Russia.

At many moments, her replies elicited boos or shouts to “tell the truth.”

“We’re not stupid; you have to do better,” Renee Armand said at one point, interrupting Ms. Blackburn as she was defending the new education secretary, Betsy DeVos, for bringing “a true love of education reform.”

Ms. Blackburn, who represents a safe Republican seat west of Nashville, was among the latest wave of Washington lawmakers to face angry constituents in what, inevitably but perhaps prematurely, has been called a progressive echo of the Tea Party anger that boiled over in town halls eight years ago.

During the first weeklong recess of the new Congress, many Republicans have chosen not to hold events at all, wary of protests that might greet them.

Others gamely faced the music, including Representative Dennis A. Ross of Florida and Senator Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, who faced largely hostile audiences on Tuesday in districts that, like Ms. Blackburn’s, had strongly endorsed Mr. Trump at the polls.

At one point, Mr. Grassley, a long-serving senator, was offered a gift from a 62-year-old Democratic pig farmer named Chris Petersen: a bottle of Tums.

“You’re going to need them in the next few years,” Mr. Petersen told the senator, drawing laughter from a crowd packed into a room at a firehouse in Iowa Falls, north of Des Moines.

Mr. Grassley later quipped that “the only time I need Tums is when I have chocolate ice cream before I go to bed.”

Anxious and agitated constituents of Mr. Grassley’s clapped and yelled out in frustration in a rural county that voted overwhelmingly for Mr. Trump.

Mr. Petersen, the vice chairman of the Iowa Democratic Party’s Rural Caucus, gave a stern warning about the repeal of the Affordable Care Act.

“With all due respect, sir, you’re the man that talked about the death panels,” Mr. Petersen said. “We’re going to create one great big death panel in this country.”

Republicans have accused the protesters who have roiled town hall-style meetings of not representing a true grass-roots outpouring but instead being an AstroTurf movement paid by shadowy groups.

From the many reports about similar town halls across the country, it does appear that there’s at least some merit to the idea that the opposition that is showing up to these town halls is organized to some degree, but that’s hardly surprising and it certainly shouldn’t be taken as a reason for Republicans complete ignore what’s happening. After all, as they should be well aware, the town hall protests that accompanied the debate over and passage  of the Affordable Care Act during the first two years of the Obama Administration were also organized and promoted by a combination of the grassroots and national organizations such as FreedomWorks and other groups that either grew out of the Tea Party movement or adapted to it. The same thing appears to be happening on the left now, with grassroots opposition to the Trump Administration combining with national organizations to alert people to meetings and organize a common strategy. Contrary to the claims of Republicans who now seek to heap disdain on protesters using the same techniques that the Tea Party did for different purposes, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with this strategy and the fact that the left has adopted a Tea Party strategy for its own purposes is, in the end, smart politics.

As The Washington Post notes in a report this morning, though, it’s still unclear whether the momentum that the Trump Administration appears to have given to this movement will be sustainable, or whether it will lead people to show up at the polls in 2018 when Democrats need them to. As things stand, that’s a hard question to answer. At this point, we are twenty-one months away from the mid-term elections and there’s a lot that could happen between now and then that will influence the outcome of the race to determine who controls Congress, including not just the fate of the Trump Administration and its policies but also the state of the economy and the world and public opinion regarding Trump and the Republicans in Congress. Additionally, Democrats face a grim task in 2018 in both chambers of Congress. In the House, they continue to deal with the fact that the redistricting after the 2010 Census created a very favorable playing field for Republicans and significantly reduced the number of truly competitive districts in the House to the point where the odds of winning enough races to gain control even by a very slim majority are rather hard to overcome. In the Senate, Democrats face an election year where there are only nine Republican seats up for re-election, only one of which (Nevada) seems to be one where Democrats can compete. At the same time, there are 23 Democratic seats up for re-election, including seats in at least ten states that can be considered strongly Republican or which Donald Trump won in 2016. While Democrats only need to flip three seats to gain control of the Senate, that’s a fairly tall order given the fact that their resources are likely to be spread fairly thin just because of the need to defend so many seats at once. Add into all of this the fact that turnout tends to favor Republicans in midterm elections, and the difficulty that Democrats face in translating today’s town hall fervor into action more than a year from now.


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Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. James in Bremerton, WA says:

    Each skipped town hall grants another month of life to those who want answers. Since there are no democrats left in office — all that torrid winning — our conservative friends are left to blame their constituents, having forgotten the chief consequence of an election is you now answer to all of them, not just the ones you like.

    The GOP, distracted from its inability to govern, is missing the early formation of a resistance with the power to derail their agenda as early as 2018, tea-party style. The only fly in that ointment is that it requires Democrats to vote in an off-year election.

    That man-baby has lied publicly and awfully each of his 33 days in office isn’t helping the GOP. The GOP Senate is busy tapping the breaks on any number of proposals as a result of this stunning lack of leadership, despite controlling it all.

    No blaming Democrats for that. All that “winning,” dontcha kno…

  2. panda says:

    The problem that the GOP faces is that 8 years in, the gerrymander becomes a bit fragile: political winds shift (suburbanites shifted to the Democrats in 2016..), people move, and so forth. And anyway, if there is a wave, a gerrymander is not immune to it: see 2006 for example.
    The Dems’ problem: unless Trump is down to W-in-2008 approval, the single best scenario they face (winning all their seats plus 2 least GOP friendly seats- NV, and AZ), in the Senate puts them at 50/50 parity, with Pence as tie breaker.
    The Dems’ opportunity: there are literally dozens of GOP-held governorships where incumbents are termed-out, and Trump-revulsion creates a window of opportunity.

  3. KM says:

    These angry malcontents and agitators at town halls are not all liberals. Some are voters who decided to give Trump a chance or want a conservative government but absolutely hate what’s been happening. Those Pennsylvanians who went red for coal jobs – they don’t want their healthcare to go away, they want the mines re-opened. The soccer moms who would love some cash to pay for little Timmy to go to a private school don’t want the public schools to go to the dogs in the meantime. Michigan, who flipped for Trump, isn’t going to want the water or environmental regs repealed so Flint Part Deux goes down. Old school conservatives who remember the Red Scare aren’t exactly pleased with all the Russia non-sense and would like some answers, please.

    These people want results. They expect results. They WON and are in control and aren’t getting what they want? No. No, that’s not how it works, buster. If they don’t get results, then those temporarily red votes go right back to being blue. Some red votes go purple or blue – they don’t want to vote Dem but damnit man, look what choice they have? Pay the piper, GOP or watch them all wander away…..

  4. Matthew Bernius says:

    Solid post Doug. As you said, beyond the structural challenges due to gerrymandering of house seats, the two big question are (1) can the Democrats sustain this grassroots momentum until 2018 and (2) what’s Republican turn out look like that year.

    Given that the Tea Party started in February of 2009, it’s definitely possible. However, I wonder to what degree it will require something like the ACA as a rallying point (which was a critical factor for the Tea Party). I’m not sure if Trump will necessarily have the same single piece of landmark legislation to run against.

    The other reality is that, as you said, everything also hinges on how demotivated Republicans and Conservatives are. 2006, when the Dems last took power in Congress, was a really depressing year for Republicans (with scandals in both the WH and Congress). So long as Republican turnout remains consistent for an off-year election, the Dems will have an uphill battle.

  5. panda says:

    @KM: And even if all the town hall people are liberals, so what? The Tea Partiers were all Republicans, and there was nothing wrong about them organizing to put pressure on the other side.

    This is why I was always skeptical of the “Koch Brothers Astroturf” arguments. Sure, the Koches helped organize the Tea Party. But they didn’t invent the people who were willing to engage in all the work.

  6. Scott says:

    The efforts do have to be sustained. And even if results from the protests are not immediate, take heart and determination from this Jacob Riis quote:

    “When nothing seems to help, I go and look at a stonecutter hammering away at his rock perhaps a hundred times without as much as a crack showing in it. Yet at the hundred and first blow it will split in two, and I know it was not that blow that did it, but all that had gone before.”

    It is Gregg Popovich’s favorite quote also. He’s been pretty successful also.

  7. panda says:

    @Scott: I’d give literally anythign to have Pop to run statewide in Texas. will never happen though..

  8. Tyrell says:

    Several years ago there was a huge movement to vote out all incumbents. All kinds of hollering and raising cain went on, but in the end almost all were re-elected. Talk is cheap. Hollering is cheaper.
    There was also the term limits movement. We had a person who ran on term limits. They won. They stayed in for about 12 terms.
    “Play it again, Sam”

  9. Terrye Cravens says:

    @Tyrell: That sounds like whistling past the graveyard.

  10. Argon says:


    Pennsylvanians who went red for coal jobs – they don’t want their healthcare to go away, they want the mines re-opened.

    Mel Brooks described those who held such unrealistically optimistic beliefs in his classic, “Blazing Saddles” (relevant movie clip).

  11. sherparick says:

    Right now the economy is growing rather steadily with low inflation (thanks Obama, and the Fed chairs he supported, Bernanke and Yellen). Absent policy mistakes, if these trends in growth, jobs, and income continue for the next 4 years, it then Trump and the Republicans will have little to worry about.

    Of course, the “absent policy mistakes” part is the catch. Some of Trump’s policy mistakes (such as the immigration ban, mass deportation, and destroying the ACA) will take some time to hurt the economy, but are still likely to have some short term effects (and likely long term devastating effects since economic growth is a combination workforce growth and productivity growth). The reduction of education, R&D, and basic research spending will have more long term negative effect.

    But the biggest likely effects will Trump’s tax policies, protectionism, and appointments to the Federal Reserve. Regarding the Federal Reserve, we don’t know yet who Trump will appoint. But given Trump’s, Cohn’s and Mnunchin’s views they will likely be hawkish on interest rates and laissez-faire on regulation. That will mean a sharper and higher rise of interest rates in the current cycle then there would have been under Yellen or Bernanke. At some point, along with a very deregulated financial sector, this is going to create a crises where the tide goes out and we see who has been swimming naked. The question will be whether that will be 1 year, 2 years, 3 years, or 6 years? Well, no one predicted the actual timing of the crises of 1929 and 2007-08. However, there were a lot of people who could tell that the conditions for a financial avalanche existed. The next recession will likely come with a Republican Party in power that will then employ pro-cyclical policies in the face of growing budget deficits (e.g. cutting SNAP, cutting Medicaid, cutting infrastructure investment, cutting unemployment benefits) based on their ideological faith that “deficits” are the worse economic evil, except for tax increases on the rich.. At that point, at least some of the Republican faithful will open to voting for a Democrat, or and more likely simply to depress to vote without someone to be angry at. But the Democrats, especially in Red States, will be fighting a lot of legal and statutory head winds likely to make it illegal as possible for likely Democratic voters to vote.

  12. Matthew Bernius says:

    “And anyway, if there is a wave, a gerrymander is not immune to it: see 2006 for example.”

    The problem with 2006 is that it happened *before* the 2010 census. That shift, plush Democratic losses in state government, led to a far higher degree of gerrymandering that we had seen in the past. The net result was an overall reduction in competitive districts.

    So yes, the Democrats could still overcome current gerrymandering, but the result of the intervening 12 years is that they will need a ground swell (and corresponding depression in Republican turnout) that must be greater then what happened in 2006.

    That’s a tall order.