Liberals are calling it "resistance recess," but Republicans are guardedly hoping that the rowdy town hall meetings they're facing back home represent a harmless burst of left-wing activism triggered by President Trump, instead of a real warning sign for the GOP in 2018.
"The resistance movement is real, growing, and becoming an electoral force," MoveOn.org's Katherine Werner claimed in an email to supporters Monday night, pointing ahead of Tuesday's special congressional election in Georgia.
"We saw this last week when a Democratic upstart came within a narrow margin of upsetting a Republican in a special election in a deep-red Kansas district," she wrote. "And we see it in the surprisingly strong showing of John [sic] Ossoff, who is making a run at Newt Gingrich's old House seat in Georgia in a special election tomorrow to replace Trump's secretary of Health and Human Services, the architect of the attempted repeal of the [Affordable Care Act]."
Yet Republicans are split on how much the protests are manufactured by Democrats versus a sea change that could threaten GOP majorities.
"I think these are liberal activists," said National Republican Congressional Committee communications director Matt Gorman, as opposed to some uprising across party lines to protect Obamacare.
"Many are liberal activists who've been outraged since November," concurred NRCC national press secretary Jesse Hunt. "There isn't one single unifying issue that's motivating them, but rather a cluster of progressive pet issues."
ThinkProgress, for example, boasted that the issue of climate change has recently been used to make Republican congressional incumbents uncomfortable. "With many Americans breathing easier about their health care, other issues, such as environmental protection and climate action, rose in prominence," wrote the group's environmental reporter Mark Hand. Others cast the protests as mostly targeting the GOP plan to repeal Obamacare.
Some Republicans have used the prominent role played by left-wing organizations to downplay the spontaneity and significance of the protests. This includes Trump himself, who tweeted in February that the "so-called angry crowds" were in many cases "planned out by liberal activists."
Others have gone so far as to argue that the anti-Trump, anti-Republican demonstrations are substantially the creation of left-wing billionaire George Soros. Conservative media outlets have attempted to connect the dots between organizers of town hall protests and Soros-linked organizations.
But for Republicans, the protests are an eerie echo of the wave of anger Democrats faced seven years ago, when conservatives showed up to protest against Obamacare. Then, many liberals argued that the Tea Party was "Astroturf" — manufactured outrage made to look like real grassroots activism — funded by billionaires on the other side, such as the Koch brothers.
Organizations funded by the Kochs and others did help mobilize those outraged by President Obama's policies, but there was also genuine anger among conservative-leaning voters. Some of the voters upped their levels of political activity and helped Republicans win the 2010 and 2014 midterm elections.
Some of the closeness of today's races indicate the wave of outrage in 2017 may be at least partly real. Just as Democrats are now contesting congressional districts in Kansas and Georgia that were won by Trump last year, Republicans won a special election in Massachusetts in early 2010 to replace the late Sen. Ted Kennedy with a Republican who vowed to break the Democrats' filibuster-proof Senate majority and serve as the 41st vote against Obamacare.
Republican operatives admit that they are hoping their party doesn't repeat the Democrats' mistakes. "I actually hope we lose the Georgia 6 race," said a GOP strategist who requested anonymity to speak candidly. "It will wake up Trump and the Republican leadership to the white, hot Democratic anger."
Progressives packing town hall meetings hope to make centrist Republicans representing swing districts wary of repealing and replacing Obamacare, while conservative lawmakers with safe seats discover whether their constituents are more aligned with the House Freedom Caucus or Trump on the GOP leadership-backed healthcare legislation.
Several Republican members of Congress have been shouted down at their local meetings, and Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Calif., required a police escort to leave an event. Some Republicans have argued the protests are too disruptive of actual constituent feedback, pushing them toward telephone town halls and other alternatives.
"As we've seen around the country, large, unstructured events tend to devolve into shouting matches," said David Pasch, communications director to Rep. Peter Roskam, R-Ill., a lawmaker who represents a district won by Hillary Clinton. "Both sides compete with each over who can scream the loudest, while the people who are interested in an actual, productive dialogue are denied the opportunity to hear and be heard."
"He has hosted 130 tele-town halls during his time in Congress (that's more than once per month, on average) and he typically has at least 10,000 people participate live," Pasch added. "We find this is a much more effective way to engage a larger number of people, including those who aren't able to make it to an in-person event."
A spokesman for Rep. Barbara Comstock, R-Va., says his boss is also looking at alternatives.
"The congresswoman has held two telephone town halls where she reached approximately 9,000 constituents and will hold more," said Jeff Marschner, Comstock's deputy chief of staff. "She and her staff have also met with hundreds of constituents at small group and individual meetings in our offices in Sterling, Winchester and on Capitol Hill."
"In addition, she has met with hundreds more constituents, as she has for the seven years she has been in office, by tirelessly visiting local businesses – small and large, hospitals, universities, schools, community organizations, Chambers of Commerce, Rotary Clubs, Kiwanis Clubs, non-profits, churches, synagogues, mosques, temples and more," Marschner continued. "There is no one who is more ever present in the district – listening to, learning from and meeting with her constituents."
Many Republicans decry the lack of civility among the protesters.
"Unfortunately, over the years town halls have disintegrated into shouting matches and have become unproductive," said Breanna Deutsch, communications director for Rep. Dave Reichert, R-Wash. "Instead Congressman Reichert believes small, in-person meetings are the best way to maintain open communication with his constituents and have productive conversations."
"The congressman has nearly 50 meetings and events scheduled over this two-week district work period and will meet with well over 200 constituents," she added. "He has consistently encouraged anyone who would like to meet with him to contact our office."
Republicans have split on their reactions to the raucous town halls. Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., faced a hostile audience last week, challenging him on Trump, Planned Parenthood funding and solar energy. Flake nevertheless tweeted out an image of the meeting and thanked attendees saying, "This is what democracy looks like!"
Rep. Markwayne Mullin, R-Okla., was panned after a town hall appearance in which he seemed to deny the taxpayers paid his congressional salary because he was privately wealthy.
Rep. Justin Amash, R-Mich., rebuked Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., for seeming reluctant to face audiences that will "heckle and scream." Rubio supporters say he was specifically describing events dominated by liberal activists.
Recent history doesn't give much of a clue as to whether the protests are a real sign of trouble for the GOP. While the Tea Party is one precedent for the town hall protests, demonstrations against Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker failed to presage his defeat in the recall election or his bid for a second term. Antiwar activism against President George W. Bush did not have much electoral impact until 2006, the final midterm elections of his presidency.
One factor that likely isn't helping is Trump's approval rating. It sits at 42.4 percent, according to the current RealClearPolitics average, indicating significant opposition to the president.