Closed-Door Events Become Minefields For GOPers Who Shirk Public Town Halls

Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., listens to a question from a woman standing in the foreground critical of his support for President Donald Trump's Cabinet nominees on Wednesday, Feb. 22, 2017, during a Carson City Chamber ... Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., listens to a question from a woman standing in the foreground critical of his support for President Donald Trump's Cabinet nominees on Wednesday, Feb. 22, 2017, during a Carson City Chamber of Commerce luncheon in Carson City, Nev. About 200 protesters clamored outside a casino Wednesday in Nevada's capital where two Republican members of the state's congressional delegation are scheduled to speak with business leaders. Muffled jeers could be heard as Heller and Rep. Mark Amodei spoke about the congressional session at the luncheon. (AP Photos/Scott Sonner) MORE LESS
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Back home in their districts while Congress is in recess, some Republicans have ducked the raucous crowds at town halls in favor of more tightly controlled conference calls and private events. But even those who stuck to closed-door events, facilitating a friendlier crowd, haven’t managed to escape the tough questions and protests that earned their colleagues so many headlines.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), in particular, has faced perhaps more opposition than he bargained for at speeches he’s given this week to local business groups. At a closed-door event on Tuesday, one woman confronted McConnell about the loss of coal mining jobs in the Bluegrass State. At a similar event Wednesday, an attendee pressed the majority leader on Republicans’ plans to replace Obamacare.

During a third luncheon on Thursday, held by the Northern Kentucky and Cincinnati Regional Chambers of Commerce, two protesters interrupted McConnell during his speech and were promptly escorted out. Attendees were not permitted to ask McConnell questions aloud at the event, and just two questions, softballs on Trump’s speech to Congress and infrastructure plan, were submitted ahead of time and read from cards.

Local progressives in Kentucky also organized protests outside of McConnell’s speeches this week, calling for the Republican senator to hold a public town hall event.

“He is our senator. He should be having meetings with his constituents, and he is not,” Dawn Cooley, a co-founder of Indivisible Kentucky, told TPM. “He is not listening to his constituents.”

Cooley said that her group has been advertising the protests outside of McConnell’s events in addition to encouraging people to purchase tickets in order to get inside closed-door events. However, it’s unclear just how many people who managed to ask McConnell questions this week were affiliated with local progressive groups.

The Kentucky Democratic Party helped organize some of the protests as well, but party spokesman Daniel Lowry told TPM that it had not urged people to attend the events.

“We really encouraged people to show up to at least protest, but on their own, people bought tickets and they got into those events of their own initiative,” Lowry said.

Nevada Republicans faced tough questions at a closed-door event on Wednesday, too. During a luncheon with the Carson City Chamber of Commerce, protesters called for Sen. Dean Heller (R-NV, pictured above) and Rep. Mark Amodei (R-NV) to hold town halls open to the public. Members of the audience also booed during Heller’s presentation on repealing the Dodd-Frank Act, according to the Reno Gazette-Journal.

The two Republicans sidestepped answering specific questions about Obamacare, arguing that they needed more time before they could address plans to repeal and replace the health care law, according to the Associated Press.

In Alabama, Rep. Gary Palmer (R-AL) was hit with questions about the Affordable Care Act and Trump’s ties to Russia during an “Eggs and Issues” breakfast event held by local chambers of commerce on Tuesday.

Dana Ellis, a 63-year-old Birmingham resident who attended the event, told TPM that people in the room had asked Palmer about Obamacare and investigations into Russia’s influence in U.S. elections. Ellis said that several questions, including the one about Russia, were met with applause from the room.

In response to a question about investigating Trump, Ellis said that Palmer mentioned the Benghazi investigation into former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and claimed that federal officials had concluded that Russia did not influence the election’s outcome. In fact, U.S. intelligence officials specifically said they “did not make an assessment of the impact that Russian activities had on the outcome of the 2016 election.”

Ellis told TPM that she approached Palmer at the end of the breakfast to ask him to push for an independent probe into Trump’s ties to Russia. In response, she said Palmer insisted again that federal officials said Russia’s hacking did not have an effect on the 2016 election.

Josh Goldman, another of Palmer’s constituents that attended the event, told TPM that another attendee asked Palmer if he would push for the release of Trump’s tax returns. Goldman said that both the questions on Russia and Trump’s tax returns were followed by applause in the room. While there were pointed questions, Goldman described the atmosphere in the room as “polite,” not “raucous.”

A local chapter of the progressive Indivisible movement sent people to attend the Palmer event and hold a protest outside, one of the organizers, Shea Rives, told TPM. But it was unclear exactly how many of the questions to Palmer were asked by people associated with the group. Rives estimated that about 15-25 out of about 100 attendees at the event were associated with Indivisible.

Rives told TPM that the group started planning around Palmer’s breakfast event before he agreed to hold a public town hall on Saturday. He said that he and other members of the Indivisible movement are looking forward to “a chance to meet with Gary personally, in person, so that we can look him in the eye and have him see us.”

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