Vulnerable Dems lay low as town hall angst rages
NEW YORK — From Montana to West Virginia, the nation’s most vulnerable Senate Democrats are avoiding town hall meetings as their Republican counterparts get pummeled by an energized electorate frustrated with President Donald Trump’s early agenda.
Some Democrats prefer to connect with constituents over the telephone or using social media. Others are meeting voters in controlled environments with limited opportunities to ask questions. But few of the 10 Democratic senators facing re-election next year in states carried by Trump have scheduled in-person town hall meetings during this week’s congressional recess.
Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill declined an invitation to attend a town hall organized by a group called Kansas City Indivisible this weekend, deciding to send a staff member in her place. The two-term senator, up for re-election next year in a state Trump won by nearly 19 percentage points, is scheduled to chat with voters next week on Facebook Live.
“Seems to me that all these members of Congress are afraid to face their constituents,” said Hillary Shields, a volunteer organizer with the Kansas City group.
The cautious approach comes as Senate Democrats work to limit risks ahead of a challenging 2018 election season. After claiming the Senate majority in 2014, Republicans could win a filibuster-proof 60-vote Senate majority next year in an election in which Democrats are defending 25 seats (23 held by Democrats, two by independents), 10 of them in states carried by Trump.
The GOP has a 52-48 edge in the Senate.
There are no easy answers for Democrats like McCaskill, pushed to stand up to the Republican president by their liberal base and pulled to cooperate with the GOP by independents and moderates.
McCaskill’s office noted she spent part of this week touring the U.S.-Mexico border and planned to host town halls later in the year.
The political pressure is particularly intense for West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin and North Dakota Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, Democrats whose states backed Trump by an average of 39 percentage points in November.
Both have avoided formal town halls this week, but Heitkamp’s office said she participated in a discussion about flood issues with constituents in northeastern North Dakota and attended a subsequent ribbon-cutting on Thursday. She planned to tour a local National Weather Service office on Friday.
Manchin’s office reported an equally busy schedule, but his constituents said he’s been hard to find this week. They’ve scheduled a protest outside the Democratic senator’s Charleston office on Friday to demand more access, according to Cathy Kunkel, an energy consultant who helped plan the protest.
“Here we are, and we’d like a town hall meeting,” Kunkel said. “His constituents have a lot of questions. This is the first recess of the new Congress in the Trump administration.”
As skittish Democrats dodge, many Republicans face an outpouring of anger in public meetings across the nation from constituents fired up over Trump’s first steps as president. Republicans like Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton have been yelled at, heckled and booed in recent days.
Some Republicans have avoided such confrontations. Texas Rep. Louie Gohmert evoked the near-fatal shooting of former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords to explain why he’s only holding telephone town halls. Giffords on Thursday urged members of Congress to “have some courage” and face their constituents.
Yet few vulnerable Senate Democrats are expected to do so in settings that allow for unscripted questions.
In Montana, where Trump prevailed by 20 percentage points, Sen. Jon Tester made several public appearances this week, but he did not advertise any of them as town halls. He answered questions about Scott Pruitt, Trump’s new chief of the Environmental Protection Agency, at one event about climate change, said spokeswoman Marnee Banks.
In Pennsylvania, a spokeswoman for Sen. Bob Casey said he would host a town hall in early March, but the details hadn’t yet been set. In Florida, Sen. Bill Nelson addressed students at two Thursday appearances focused on education. And in Ohio, Sen. Sherrod Brown “has participated in several telephone conference calls recently” and his office “emailed surveys out to constituents” to gauge their priorities, said spokeswoman Jennifer Donohue.
For now, protesters’ angst is largely focused on Republicans. But only a few weeks ago, Democrats including Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and liberal heroine Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren faced a sharp rebuke for backing one of Trump’s Cabinet picks.
“Grassroots Democrats won’t be shy about challenging their own leaders if they sense a whiff of cooperation with the Trump agenda,” said Ben Wikler, Washington director for the liberal group MoveOn.org.
It’s unclear if they’ll get the chance with certain Senate Democrats, however.
Shields noted that McCaskill made time to visit the Mexican border: “We’d like to have her back in Missouri.”