Over the past two weeks, liberal activists have quietly and widely circulated a long Google spreadsheet. It contains the exact time, date, and location of more than 100 events that members of Congress will host in their districts this month.
It’s titled Town Hall Project 2018, and it is a battle plan, borrowed from an old foe: the Tea Party.
In their efforts to pressure Republicans to save the Affordable Care Act, liberals are increasingly copying the tactics of the conservative activists who mobilized against the law in 2009.
“We want to empower constituents to have face-to-face conversations, which we know from our organizing backgrounds can be powerful,” says Jimmy Dahman, who runs Town Hall Project 2018. “The goal of this project is to organize people in districts who are upset and frustrated.”
Dahman used to work for the Clinton campaign. He got the idea for Town Hall Project 2018 when he was watching CNN and happened to see a clip of Rep. Mike Coffman (R-CO) leaving his office hours through a back door after a significant crowd of Obamacare advocates arrived. He started to wonder: What if we could make this happen all over the country?
The Obamacare protests are growing larger and more heated, leading to arrests on Capitol Hill and one legislator canceling an event altogether. The first weekend of February, massive crowds turned up at Republican legislators’ town halls in California and New York.
Seasoned advocates on both sides of the issue say this looks a lot like the organizing against the health care law that gave rise to the Tea Party in 2009.
“Eight years ago we were in the same boat,” says Dean Clancy, who previously ran policy for Freedom Works, a Tea Party-affiliated group that advocated against the health care law. “We were stunned, angry, fearful, besieged, paranoid, but we were also liberated. The feeling was wonderful, like you're the rebels in Star Wars.”
Tea Party activists showed up en masse to Democratic legislators’ events during the summer of 2009, turning typically mundane meetings into heated shouting matches over “death panels” and “pulling the plug on Grandma.”
Dahman wants to harness the energy he now sees among liberals — albeit in a slightly more organized way.
“I remember those town halls; they have definitely come to mind,” Dahman says. “This kind of looks like 2009 all over again. Our bet is that we think a bunch of progressives, champing at the bit to organize, can make this spontaneous movement a little bit more structured.”
The Obamacare protests are heating up — just like they did in 2009
The summer of 2009 was an especially challenging time for Democrats, as they found themselves besieged by protesters at local meetings. At one particularly memorable meeting, Rep. John Dingell (D-MI) was approached by Mike Sola, who brought his wheelchair-bound son to the podium. “You’ve ordered a death sentence to this young man,” he shouted before being escorted out by police.
These were the moments that helped fuel the rise of the Tea Party movement, as activists came out to protest what they saw as a government takeover of the American health care system. Tea Party activists became a force to be reckoned with in conservative politics, helping Republicans win the House in 2010, supporting primary challengers to the right of GOP incumbents, and cheering the 2013 government shutdown, an attempt to stop Obamacare’s rollout.
Tea Party activists have kept Obamacare repeal a top issue for the Republican Party — and their early protests were key in making sure not a single Republican legislator supported the law.
It’s unclear whether the liberal protests of 2016 will follow a similar trajectory — but the opening battles are awfully familiar.
The town halls of 2016 have not gotten quite as heated yet, but the temperature is rising. In mid-January, Coffman left his regular open hours meeting at a local library early after hundreds showed up to discuss the health care law.
Rep. David Brat (R-VA) recently lamented how he’s gotten bombarded by Obamacare supporters.
“Since Obamacare and these issues have come up, the women are in my grill no matter where I go,” Brat said at a local gathering of conservative groups, the Richmond Times-Dispatch reported. “They come up — ‘When is your next town hall?’ And believe me, it’s not to give positive input.”
Chants of “save our health care” drowned out an address that Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA) gave on Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
Rep. Barbara Comstock (R-VA) did not attend two previously scheduled town hall meetings this weekend. That “angered dozens of constituents who wanted clarity on the GOP’s plan to replace Obamacare,” Politico reported.
And approximately 1,000 people protested outside Rep. John Faso (R-NY)’s office in early February. One women, who said she was undergoing brain cancer treatment and using ACA programs, asked Faso “to promise we will not take this away from you.”
“I promise, I promise,” Faso responded.
Early successes are fueling a movement
Protests over the past two weekends — the Women’s March first, followed by more spontaneous events at airports after Trump’s immigration order — have shown that hundreds of thousands of Trump opponents are interested in organizing.
And a few key, early victories, activists argue, can help keep those people turning out.
This includes the Trump administration sharply reversing course on a decision to pull down open enrollment ads for the Affordable Care Act after outcry from health advocates.
It’s not clear whether that decision was made in response to the outcry or due to the logistical hurdles of taking down advertisements the previous administration had already paid for. Either way, it egged on health law advocates.
“I was surprised, and I think there was a clear lesson: Activism, and outreach to others, can and already has had an impact,” says Ron Pollack, executive director of Families USA, a group that advocates in the law’s favor. “This is encouragement for people to be active and make a difference, even in the context of the Republican Party having the levers of power in the White House.”
More such news came this week, when Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) tweeted that she would oppose the nomination of Betsy DeVos for education secretary after receiving a wave of negative feedback from her constituents.
After careful consideration, and hearing from Alaskans, I will vote against Betsy DeVos for Secretary of Education: https://t.co/u7sNCPUH3d.— Sen. Lisa Murkowski (@lisamurkowski) February 1, 2017
Obamacare repeal, Dahman said, is something legislators should be pushed to answer on in a similar way.
“If they’re going to take health care away from millions, they need to have the input of constituents,” he says. “And if they’re not going to meet with constituents, that is going to draw some ire.”
Protests will likely grow when legislators go on recess
Dahman doesn’t quite know where Town Hall Project 2018 goes next — although it’s growing much faster than he expected. He now has 100 volunteers helping him update the spreadsheet, which grows day by day with new events.
“Two days ago, I spent maybe a couple hours a day training volunteers and responding to volunteers,” he says. “The last two days, though, I’ve been flooded by emails, Facebook messages, and tweets. I’ve done 15- to 16-hour days, trying to respond to everybody in a timely fashion.”
Dahman expects things will heat up even more when Congress goes on recess, a moment when legislators tend to hold more events in home districts. Again, this would be a parallel to the 2009 Tea Party protests, which got especially heated over the 2009 summer recess.
Clancy, the Tea Party activist, sees the appeal of the moment for liberals. “There's nothing more American than protest, and few things more enjoyable,” he says. “I suspect Trump must appear to them as Obama appeared to us, as a threat to everything we believe and cherish. You have to respect them for resisting that.”
Correction: Rep. Peter Roskam did not cancel his health care meeting, but rescheduled it as it was an event for constituents only and a reporter arrived.