Republicans who benefited from rowdy town halls six years ago and harnessed a wave of discontent with Democrats to win seats in Congress are learning a hard lesson this week as they return home: The left is happy to return the favor.
Across the U.S., Democrats and their allies are spending this short congressional recess protesting elected Republican politicians who are avoiding the events that often turn into shouting matches.
Just like the tea party sympathizers who vented against Democrats and President Barack Obama, the new left and left-leaning protesters are taking out their ire on Republicans and their links to President Donald Trump.
Left-leaning groups have scheduled a town hall for Friday in Denver that they hoped U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner would attend. It is being framed as an “in absentia” town hall because Gardner does not plan on attending.
Similar town halls are being planned by left-leaning groups for other Republican lawmakers from Colorado and across the nation, including U.S. Reps. Mike Coffman of Aurora and Doug Lamborn of Colorado Springs.
The Coffman town hall, which the representative does not plan on attending, is scheduled for Thursday evening in Aurora. The Lamborn town hall was held Wednesday evening in Colorado Springs, though Lamborn did not attend, as he was traveling out of the country.
The town halls are being framed as “with or without you.”
Behind the scenes, progressive groups acknowledge that it is a long-shot effort to get the Republican lawmakers to attend the town halls. The elected officials are aware that the meetings would trap them in aggressive attacks by left-leaning activists, and the protesters themselves acknowledge that the meetings offer fodder.
The movement resembles actions taken by the tea party in the wake of President Obama’s 2008 victory.
In Denver this week, the activists targeted Gardner — denouncing him as inaccessible and beaming a picture of him fashioned into a “Missing” poster to a wall of the Denver Art Museum while protesting Trump’s plans to boost energy production on public lands.
Gardner “is supposed to represent us, but where is he?” said Emma Spett, a 22-year-old environmental activist from Denver who says she’s “terrified” of environmental policy changes backed by Trump.
Gardner defeated a Democrat in 2010, and used impromptu town hall meetings heavily attended by tea party members in his campaign to rail against Obama’s Affordable Care Act and incumbent congressional representatives he labeled as out of touch with voters.
Now an incumbent who doesn’t face re-election until 2020, Gardner has no town halls scheduled and was met Wednesday at an agricultural forum in Denver by protesters yelling “We want a town hall!”
He dodged questions from reporters about why he did not plan any, saying that he supports “people who are expressing differing points of views” and that his staff meets with protesters.
Experts say that avoiding town halls is a tactic used by incumbents to dodge being berated in widely publicized local events.
“If you’re there at a town hall meeting and there’s hundreds of people there yelling at you, it’s going to be a media event,” said Seth Masket, a political scientist at the University of Denver “They’re calculating that the bad press they’re going to get from not having a town hall is not going to be as bad as that.”
Republicans accused of going into hiding are getting some sympathy — from Democrats they defeated, including former Colorado U.S. Rep. Betsy Markey.
Back in 2010, she held town hall meetings focusing on health care only to be greeted by a deluge of conservative protesters who showed up waving yellow “Don’t Tread on Me” flags.
“They were pretty rowdy,” Markey recalled with a chuckle.
Republicans who managed their campaigns to take advantage of the tea party movement’s populist appeal must learn to take what was dished out before to the Democrats, she said.
“That’s why you were elected, to represent the people. You come back on weekends, you come back on breaks, and you talk to people — even if they don’t like what you’re doing,” Markey said.