The Easter recess hasn’t been restful for Republican congressmen in swing districts. Within minutes of beginning his presentation at an Orlando town hall Tuesday, freshman Rep. Dan Webster was cut off by angry constituents. Irked by Webster’s vote for Rep. Paul Ryan’s budget, they heckled and booed the congressman, touching off a chaotic confrontation with Webster’s supporters, who began chanting to “let him talk.” At one point, a uniformed police officer stepped to the front of the auditorium to implore the crowd, “We’re grown people. Let’s conduct ourselves likewise.”
Webster wasn’t the only one feeling the heat in the wake of the vote for the Ryan budget, which lowers tax rates for corporations and wealthy individuals while replacing Medicare with private-insurance subsidies that will be outpaced by rising health-care costs. Webster’s fellow Florida freshman Allen West faced down an angry constituent, saying “You’re not going to intimidate me.” Last week in Illinois, Congressman Robert Dold’s presentation on the deficit was interrupted by voters incensed by corporate tax loopholes. In Pennsylvania, freshman Lou Barletta was rebuked by a 64-year-old woman who wanted to know why he backed “a plan that will destroy Medicare.” (“I won’t destroy Medicare,” Barletta responded. “Medicare is going to be destroyed by itself.”) In Hillsborough, N.H., a constituent admonished Charlie Bass not to “screw up” the social-welfare program. Ryan himself was jeered at a gathering in southern Wisconsin.
The cascade of confrontations called up memories of the summer of 2009, when Democratic town halls were marked by pitched battles over health-care reform. This week’s fireworks haven’t escalated to that point, and the analogy is somewhat stretched. The fiery health-care town halls were stoked by months of debate over a proposal with strong prospects of passage. Ryan’s budget is dead in the water, and most voters are still fuzzy on its specifics. But Democratic advocacy groups, who point to polls like a recent McClatchy survey in which 80% of respondents opposed Medicare cuts, intend to batter Republicans for the vote all the way to 2012. “It’s a perfect summation of the Republican priorities: tax breaks for millionaires and screw seniors, basically,” says Justin Ruben, executive director of the liberal group Moveon.org. “That’s a really important story to tell the American public, and it’s one that the Democrats are just starting to tell. Most people haven’t even heard of it.”
Conservatives downplayed the Florida fracas, suggesting that the noisy naysayers were Democratic plants. “It was a planned disruption,” says a GOP congressional aide. Fox News blared headlines asking whether liberals had “staged assaults” on Republican town halls.
Ruben says MoveOn members in Webster’s district circulated notices about the planned town-hall meeting to alert local supporters. “We have to make sure people understand that the Ryan budget would end Medicare in order to give new tax breaks to millionaires. When people hear it, my experience is they get very angry,” he says. Of the Republican reaction, he adds, “Go ahead and minimize it. Ignore it. Pretend it’s a few people. What the Republicans are trying to do is so out of whack with the priorities of the American people…They ignore this backlash at their peril.”
John Boehner’s less-than-fulsome embrace of the Ryan budget this week suggests Republicans may, in fact, be skittish about the repercussions from the vote. In some districts, a dollop of unease is hardly unexpected. In Webster’s Eighth Congressional District, for example, a plurality of registered voters are Democrats (39%), and an aging population sees Medicare as a touchstone issue. An array of Democratic groups plan to make Medicare the centerpiece of a campaign to highlight the GOP’s skewed priorities. “This vote on the budget is going to be the gift that keeps on giving,” says one Democratic strategist.
A group called Americans United for Change launched TV and radio ads around the U.S. urging constituents to call their Republican representative to ask, “What were you thinking?” The DCCC has made small investments in more than 40 districts with ads or robocalls referencing Medicare, including those held by Webster, West, Barletta and Bass. “They have put back into play two critical groups of the electorate: seniors and independents,” DCCC chairman Steve Israel said. Outside groups like the new House Majority PAC have also placed major ad buys.
For his part, Webster handled the situation in Orlando gracefully, telling a reporter that he expected and encouraged a robust debate. “Congressman Webster is going to continue these town hall meetings to discuss the gravity of the situation when it comes to spending in Washington,” says a spokesperson. It’ll be interesting to see whether the next crowd is any gentler.