Republican challengers across the country have found a new way of capitalizing on the roiling emotions surrounding congressional health care town hall meetings.
Driven by intense voter interest in the topic, the almost-certain promise of media coverage and the opportunity to upstage incumbent Democrats, GOP candidates in state after state are holding their own health care town halls — and reveling in the subsequent publicity bonanza.
The health care events are proving to be a boon for those seeking to oust incumbents, delivering the most precious of political commodities — voter attention and local press coverage.
Florida Republican Allen West, who is running against Rep. Ron Klein (D-Fla.), said his Deerfield Beach town hall meeting earlier this month drew several hundred local residents, many of whom stayed long after the 90-minute session ended to chat with him.
Just as important, the event was the subject of extensive media coverage and was streamed live on a local news website.
“We made the 11 o'clock news,” said West.
“I just think that if you’re a smart candidate right now, you should be getting out there and getting in front of the people,” he said. “If you’re not doing that, you’re putting yourself behind the eight ball.”
The challenger town halls serve another important purpose by offering candidates the chance to fill the void left by incumbent Democrats who have opted against holding large-scale, in-person town halls out of fear of raucous crowds or out of a desire to talk to constituents in smaller or more controlled settings.
Adam Kinzinger, a Republican who’s running against freshman Democratic Rep. Deborah Halvorson in Illinois, held five town halls to highlight his criticism of the congresswoman’s avoidance of public health care meetings during the August recess.
Halvorson’s approach has been to schedule telephone town halls — events that are akin to a telephone conference call — and to place a health care reform survey on her congressional website.
“I just decided that if she’s not going to throw the town hall meetings, then we’ll do it,” Kinzinger told POLITICO, claiming that each of his events drew a crowd of hundreds. “By the time this is said and done, my campaign will have provided close to 1,500 people the opportunity to speak out on health care.”
Kinzinger isn’t the only one staging town halls to make a point. In Washington state, Republican Jon Russell scheduled a series of four public forums “focusing primarily on the federal deficit and health care reform” to provide a contrast with his Democratic opponent, Rep. Brian Baird, who at first declined to hold open health care town hall meetings.
Baird, who drew criticism in early August for saying that health care reform opponents who disrupted meetings used “Brown Shirt tactics,” a reference to Nazi storm troopers, later relented and announced his own series of public meetings, in addition to the telephone town halls he already planned.
In Arkansas, Republicans have also wielded town halls as a weapon against Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.), who is seeking reelection in 2010.
Lincoln, who originally had no open health care meetings scheduled for the August recess, generated controversy in early August by referring to disruptive protesters as “un-American.” While she later backed away from that statement, Arkansas Republicans kept the heat on.
Senate candidate Tom Cox, a Tea Party organizer, vowed in an an August 17 campaign blog post to hold a series of health care-themed public meetings before the end of the month—he held his first on Saturday. The state GOP scheduled its own series of health care town halls, dubbed the “Listening to Arkansas” tour,.
On August 18, Lincoln announced that she would hold three “town-hall style” forums in early September.
Officials with the National Republican Congressional Committee declined to say whether they were specifically encouraging GOP candidates to hold town hall meetings in places where incumbents were avoiding them. But they said the development would help GOP candidates gain traction at a time when public skepticism over health care reform appears to be growing.
“The question so many Democrats are asking themselves is this: Is it better to duck and cover through Election Day, or is it better to listen but ignore their concerns?” said NRCC spokesman Tory Mazzola.
Jennifer Crider, a spokeswoman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, questioned the sincerity of the GOP approach.
“Their candidates are getting bashed,” she said. “Misleading constituents about the facts on health care reform isn’t something to be proud of, and local press is calling Republicans out on it. Republican candidates can parrot Washington Republicans’ misleading talking points, while Democrats are engaging in an open conversation about the need for health insurance reform.”
If nothing else, the counter-town halls have succeeded in one important way — they’ve been effective in fostering the impression that some Democratic incumbents are reluctant to meet with the public.
In the case of Rep. Carol Shea-Porter (D-N.H.), whose GOP challenger Frank Giunta has a town hall scheduled for Monday, the scrutiny over her reticence to hold open town halls led to unflattering press coverage.
The congresswoman made her name as an anti-war activist who followed the incumbent she defeated in 2006 from town hall to town hall. She was even escorted out of a 2005 town hall meeting featuring President George W. Bush, so her aversion to scheduling such events as an officeholder struck a nerve.
“The conclusion has to be that she doesn't want to face questions from people who disagree with her positions, particularly on health care,” wrote the Portsmouth Herald, in an editorial. “We find this curious and regrettable, especially given her history of challenging her predecessor, Jeb Bradley, for nearly two years during his town hall meetings. Some might say she hounded him.”
Shea-Porter ultimately relented and agreed to hold a town hall meeting on Saturday— two days before Guinta’s event.
In Texas, GOP challenger Rob Curnock, who has planned a series of face-to-face public town hall meetings, took credit for Democratic Rep. Chet Edwards’s recent change of heart on health care town halls.
Edwards had initially scheduled a telephone town hall meeting and smaller gatherings with constituents but no public town hall forums. Yet not long after Curnock revealed his plans — and after demonstrations outside his district offices — Edwards announced that he would hold three in-person forums before the end of the month despite his “initial concerns about a handful of people disrupting the discussion.”
“Evidently we really put him on the spot,” said Curnock, who also ran against Edwards in 2008. “This has stirred up a real hornet’s nest. I feel strongly that people should have the chance to have their say, and if the congressman won’t do it, I will listen.”
Two weeks ago, the two ended up holding dueling events on the same night, with Curnock participating in the first of his four town hall meetings and Edwards speaking to his constituents via conference call.
A spokesman for Edwards noted that the congressman was able to reach many times more residents than Curnock.
“Congressman Edwards spoke to nearly 20,000 constituents directly about health care Thursday night,” said Edwards spokesman Josh Taylor. “Mr. Curnock, according to press reports, spoke to approximately 100. Those results speak for themselves.”
While Democrats have mostly been the targets of the challenger town halls, there’s at least one Democrat who has turned the tables on an incumbent Republican — Ami Bera, who is running for Congress in northern California.
While his opponent, GOP Rep. Dan Lungren, has been holding town hall meetings across the district, Bera is hoping to take advantage of his background as a physician by hosting his own health care forums next week. He called health care “the driving reason” he entered the race.
“I’m compelled to talk about it and compelled to hear people’s stories — in many ways these are my stories as a doctor,” said Bera. “Would I be doing this anyway? Yes. Does the focus on health care right now accelerate the need for these conversations? Yes.”