Politics & Government

Gun reform activists demand town halls. Many Republicans have ducked them since 2017

The organizers of March for Our Lives are hoping they can turn more than 700 marches in the U.S. on ending gun violence into 535 town halls on April 7 – one for every member of Congress right before they return to work on April 9.

It’s an uphill battle under normal circumstances. But with fewer in-person town halls generally, polarized demonstrations at town halls last year over Obamacare, and the volatility of a congressional election year, it’s more a mountain than a hill.

“This is not an unreasonable thing to expect. If they can meet with donors every recess they can take an hour to talk to constituents – it is called ‘district work period,’” said Nathan Williams, managing director of the Town Hall Project, which is helping out March for Our Lives organizers on the issue. “But yes, it’s safe to say that not all 535 will host town halls over recess. There will probably be mostly empty chair town halls on the seventh.”

Williams said they’ve gotten calls from more than 300 potential organizers from about 130 districts on hosting town halls on April 7. If the member of Congress refuses to show up, they’ll have an “empty chair” town hall, inviting members’ campaign opponents and hosting constituents to voice their concerns. So far, 48 members of Congress have in-person town halls scheduled over the recess, and about a third of them are Republicans.

More than a dozen such empty chair town halls were officially organized by Thursday, including ones for Reps. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., Ken Buck, R-Colo., Ron Estes, R-Kan., Erik Paulsen, R-Minn., and Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio.

“Nobody likes to get shouted at, or have their humanity called into question,” said Michael Neblo, a professor at Ohio State University who has studied town halls for over a decade. “Especially in purple districts, you won’t have members willing to stand there and look contrary to their constituents.”

The town hall on gun violence hosted by CNN in February after the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting that killed 17 people in Parkland, Florida, was a “red flag” for many Republicans, according to Scott Jennings, a Republican political strategist and special assistant to former President George W. Bush. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., was both repeatedly booed for his views on gun control and occasionally thanked for showing up to the debate, as other Republicans such as Florida Gov. Rick Scott and President Donald Trump declined invitations. Rubio was also a frequent target of Stoneman Douglas students who spoke at the D.C. march last Saturday.

“He’s been drug through the mud ever since. And he’s not a radical on this issue,” Jennings said. “We have a saying in debate prep – if someone is moving your way, don’t step on them. That’s what they’re doing to Rubio.”

There is no historic data on how often town halls are held, according to Neblo, but most who study the issue say it has markedly decreased. It started when Democrats took heavy criticism over Obamacare in 2009, and then suffered another drop after renewed debate over repealing Obamacare targeted Republicans in 2017.

But March for Our Lives organizers, coming off a weekend that saw hundreds of thousands of people participate in rallies for gun control reform across the nation, aren’t giving up. Williams said Town Hall Project reached out a week before the march to offer its help and floated the idea that this march happening before a recess was a great time to demand town halls. The Parkland students have been pushing people over social media to organize town halls since Sunday.

“When people take an action like (the march), they are energized to do something after,” Williams said. “People want to know, ‘what next?’”

The Town Hall Project has identified 158 “missing members,” the group’s term for members who have not held an in-person town hall since January 2017. Nearly half of Republican House and Senate members make the list compared to 10 percent of Democratic members. Neblo said if the public looked at those numbers in 2009 it probably would have seen a reverse, as Tea Party-affiliated people targeted Democrats.

“It changed the character of town halls,” Neblo said. “They weren’t focused on a discussion of policies, they just wanted to make members of Congress take some abuse.”

It’s the Republicans pulling back now because they’re on defense, Neblo said. Town halls attracted increased attention in 2017 as constituents shared stories about Obamacare saving their lives and commonly shouted down Republicans intent on repealing the health care law. Videos were posted on social media of members looking uncomfortable, exasperated or downright angry in the face of yelling crowds. In some cases, law enforcement and security escorted members out of the town halls, citing safety concerns.

Spotlighting gun reform efforts before the town halls even occur won’t encourage hesitant members on the opposite side of the fence to turn up. Jennings said while he thinks members of Congress should listen to constituents, he would never advocate for “allowing people fundamentally aligned against you to dictate your events.” He said the empty chair town halls aren’t “anything new” for members used to campaigning in contested districts.

Rep. Mimi Walters, R-Calif., whose district was won by Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton in 2016, said on a radio show in April 2017 that her critics and far-left groups were using town halls to “try to get me to say something that they can use against me in the campaign.”

She hasn’t hosted an in-person town hall since October 2016, instead hosting telephone town halls, which allow the member’s staff to pre-screen questions, doesn’t typically allow follow-up questions and doesn’t allow for political demonstrations. That’s a growing trend among members of Congress, while others have their staff members host town halls.

“It’s qualitatively a different thing,” said Williams, who said tele-town halls are useful if they’re used only as supplement to in-person town halls. “It’s different when someone looks you in the eye and says, ‘I’m scared to go to school every day, how are you helping me?’”

Other House Republican seats targeted by Democrats include Reps. Carlos Curbelo, R-Fla., who is having staff-only town halls; David Valadao, R-Calif., who has no town halls on his public schedule; Paulsen, who is facing an empty chair town hall; and Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., who has only hosted telephone and Facebook Live town halls since January 2017.

More than a dozen members of Congress on the missing members list checked by McClatchy had no town halls listed on their public schedule at anytime in the future. Among Republicans, only staff for Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Calif., responded to requests for comment, saying the campaign planned to host town-hall style debates in the fall.

Kate Irby: 202-383-6071, @kateirby