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Town Hall Events Provide Pitfalls at Home

Once-Popular Meeting Style Helped Sweep Republican Wave Into Office in '10

Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo
"It isn't possible for me to hold a town hall meeting right now. ... If I held a town hall meeting after the filing period, Democrats would all scream" that I was using federal funds to campaign, Rep. Charles Bass said. "Heck, I did it when I ran against Dick Swett in 1994. He held a town meeting in August or September."

Angry voters confronting Members of Congress at town hall events - especially in August 2009 and 2010 over a Democratic health care bill - helped provide momentum that the GOP rode to control of the House.

Two years later, another August recess has passed and there are signs that some of those Republican lawmakers swept into power from that election are scaling back the opportunities for voters to confront them at such events.

For example, a handful of Republicans in vulnerable seats held no town-hall-type events in August. Some haven't held an event billed as a "town hall" in more than six months.

In many cases, lawmakers are opting for smaller, more low-key events that limit opportunities for political opponents to organize attendance.

Rep. Charles Bass (R-N.H.), who held plenty of events, but no town halls, in August, offered a reason for not scheduling such events during this recess.

"It isn't possible for me to hold a town hall meeting right now. ... If I held a town hall meeting after the filing period, Democrats would all scream" that I was using federal funds to campaign, Bass said. "Heck, I did it when I ran against Dick Swett in 1994. He held a town meeting in August or September."

Bass went on to defeat Swett that year and held his seat until 2006, when Democrat Paul Hodes defeated him. He reclaimed the seat in 2010, beating Democrat Ann McLane Kuster, whom he faces again this November.

"We're seeing a lot of events where Members only announce it happened after the event is over, meaning that constituents don't know about it in advance and can't plan to be there," a Democratic operative said.

Many Republicans, for their part, say they are fighting professional Democratic activists who have "hijacked" the town halls they once held from the constituents they are supposed to serve.

But with anger from the "ugly" tea party town halls of the last Congress still lingering, Democrats call the explanation a lame excuse.

It's easy to forget the significant role town halls played in the 2010 elections, when dozens of GOP challengers rode the momentum to victory.

For instance, freshman Rep. Chris Gibson's opponent, then-Rep. Scott Murphy (D), had visited more than 100 towns in the New York district to meet with voters.

But Gibson demanded joint town halls with Murphy, which Murphy declined to attend.

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