Consultant: Republicans must take town hall protests seriously

Inside the contentious Obamacare town halls
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Story highlights

  • Protests at GOP legislators' town halls pose a big problem for members of Congress, says GOP consultant Doug Heye
  • Democrats who criticized the 2009 and 2010 tea party protests missed the point and lost their House majority, Heye says

Doug Heye is a CNN political commentator and former deputy chief of staff to then-House Majority Leader Eric Cantor. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own.

(CNN)While much of Washington is absorbed with the latest machinations of the Trump White House, congressional Republicans are finding scores of voters showing up at their town halls and other events. And those voters are angry.

This should not be a surprise.
Look no farther than Raleigh, North Carolina, where tens of thousands marched this past weekend and where for nearly four years, well-organized liberal protests called "Moral Mondays" packed the state Capitol each week, protesting actions on voting access and the HB2 "bathroom bill." These created weekly headaches for state legislators, and brought the bright glare of local and national news cameras, who often covered the protests live.
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    The protests did not succeed in having the Legislature reverse itself on any of the issues being protested, but succeeded with a larger goal -- Republican Gov. Pat McCrory was voted out of office.
    But this isn't limited to one city. Events by Reps. Justin Amash, Gus Bilirakis and Tom McClintock, and a joint "constituent service day" with the staffs of Sens. Johnny Isakson and David Perdue and Rep. Jody Hice aimed at helping voters facing specific issues with the federal government, have been disrupted.
    In addressing a crowd of nearly 1,000 the Salt Lake Tribune called a "hostile and harassing audience," Utah Republican Jason Chaffetz was greeted with chants of "Do your job!" It's no wonder the House Republican Conference is briefing members on how to ensure security at events.
    Some Republicans argue these protests are "AstroTurf" and "phony," and that behind them are organized Democratic activists, paid or otherwise, who are happy to cross district lines and make noise.
    Sure, on the one hand these are clearly well-organized, which means the Democrats are utilizing their huge organizational networks to support these events. That of course does not mean that it's a bunch of paid protesters, as clearly there are a lot of citizens who are concerned about President Trump's plans on the travel ban and repealing Obamacare, among other issues.
    What Republicans shouldn't forget is that Democrats who criticized the 2009 and 2010 tea party protests missed the point and lost their House majority.
    Democrats were caught flat-footed. They ignored or dismissed the protests, while insulting patriotic Americans angry at the direction of the country. Republicans would be smart to learn in advance the lessons Democrats learned the hard way.
    That starts with planning; whether a member hosts large town halls, or smaller events, congressional offices must be ready when targeted with a protest, a rude questioner or opposition campaign aides filming events up close. These may not happen at a public town hall, but at a private event that gets leaked or an event held at a private business.
    This includes:

    1. Developing a plan of action

    Will protesters be engaged? If so, how? Will meetings be public or private? Are attendees allowed to film? One House member told me last week they are happy to meet with protesters, but given their district office location, they have to limit groups to 10 or less. Is this workable? And how, if at all, will the member or senator participate? Will open town halls be held at all?

    2. Controlling the optics

    Leaving through a back door into a waiting black SUV to avoid protests never looks good. Neither does walking through a group of people screaming. Or having large bodyguards. Are there entrances and exits that are completely private? Are there less expensive automobiles? Bonus points if the politician drives himself or herself.

    3. Utilizing social media

    Post pictures from the meeting demonstrating an eagerness to hear from all viewpoints. Thank those for coming. Smile. Meanwhile, ensure that your staff is sharing these across social media platforms and that supporters will similarly share through their networks. The opposition certainly will.

    4. Remember, these are your constituents

    Treat them accordingly. Whether it's the politician or staff, constituents expect to have their concerns listened to respectfully. Those yelling, waving signs with foul language or screaming a message that consists of "RESIST!" will not be their own best advocates. Don't get in their way and don't take the bait. Don't be a shrinking violet, but be polite. Offer them coffee.
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    Open town halls harken back to the high-minded civic (and civil) debates we imagine of our founding fathers. In reality, though, they often reward the loudest, angriest voices at the expense of respectful discussion, as we are seeing now.
    But members of Congress, regardless of party, are not bound to host events that run the risk of becoming free-for-alls. Besides, if a politician wants to learn more about education, health care or small business issues, visiting schools, community health centers and local businesses are more effective vehicles to learn the challenges we face.
    There are other ways to hear what's on constituents' minds. Congressional offices talk to constituents every day and get feedback from phone calls through the mail and online. Many host virtual or tele-town halls while Congress is in session. Local district offices exist solely for the purpose of being responsive to constituents' concerns.
    Democrats smell blood, and with Congress out of session next week -- and a media eager to cover these confrontations -- they will be out in full force. Republican senators and members of Congress need to prepare now, and even cancel large-scale events, or be ready to be next week's bad headline.