More than seven years after angry anti-Obamacare town halls erupted across the country, raw emotions are boiling over again – this time, as the Republican Party under President Donald Trump gears up to dismantle Barack Obama’s legacy.
And the fury is flaring up in some of most conservative corners of the country.
On Thursday night, two Republican members of Congress – Reps. Jason Chaffetz of Utah and Diane Black of Tennessee – were each confronted with impassioned constituents during simultaneous events. The shouted questions, emotional pleas and raucous protesters of the evening crystalized the GOP’s tough political road ahead as it forges ahead with rolling back Obama’s accomplishments, including the Affordable Care Act.
In suburban Salt Lake City, local police estimated that some 1,000 people packed into a high school auditorium to see Chaffetz as hundreds more waited outside. For 75 minutes, the congressman confronted a crowd that fumed with resentment of Trump and accused Chaffetz of coddling the President.
“Folks – I get one sentence into it, you say I’m not answering the question,” an exasperated Chaffetz complained as the crowd repeatedly jeered him. “I am answering the question, OK?”
And some 1,700 miles away in the town of Murfreesboro, Tennessee, Black was met with roughly 100 protesters at a “Ask Your Reps” event hosted by the Middle Tennessee State University’s College Republicans.
Mike Carlson, a 32-year-old student from Antioch, Tennessee, said that as an overweight man, he depended on Obamacare to stay alive.
“I have to have coverage to make sure I don’t die. There are people now who have cancer that have that coverage, that have to have that coverage to make sure they don’t die,” Carlson said. “And you want to take away this coverage — and have nothing to replace it with! How can I trust you to do anything that’s in our interest at all?”
Jessi Bohon, a 35-year-old high school teacher who lives in Cookeville, Tennessee, was visibly emotional as she stood up and posed her question.
“As a Christian, my whole philosophy in life is pull up the unfortunate,” Bohon said, a comment that drew verbal affirmation from others in the room. “The individual mandate: that’s what it does. The healthy people pull up the sick.”
Bohon went on to ask how Congress could be OK with “punishing our sickest people” rather than trying to “fix what’s wrong with Obamacare,” the sweeping healthcare law that covers 20 million Americans.
Black responded that Obamacare’s individual mandate – which requires everyone to have health insurance or pay a penalty – still allowed millions, including many young and healthy people, to be without coverage.
“About 20 million people did actually come into the program who were uninsured,” Black said. “You don’t want to hurt one group of people to help the another. We can help both groups at the same time.”
Bohon shot back: “How many of those people were in states where they played a political game with people’s lives?”
Black appeared flustered, and declined to continue. “I’m going to pass this one,” she said.
Bohon told CNN afterward that as a state employee, she receives health insurance through the state. Her question to Black, she said, was motivated in part by her Christian beliefs, as well as her upbringing in the coal-mining town of Grundy, Virginia.
“Growing up in the community that I grew up, in Appalachia, because we were so poor there that we had to take care of each other,” Bohon said.
Both Carlson and Bohon told CNN that they voted for Hillary Clinton in the general election.
The same event hosted by MTSU’s College Republican last year was attended by around 30 to 40 people, according to organizers. On Thursday night, the room was quickly filled to capacity while dozens outside chanted: “Let us in! Let us in!”
Black, along with two other GOP local officials, were at first asked questions that had been pre-submitted on the topics of healthcare and tax reform – a format that clearly frustrated audience members and prompted some to interrupt.
At one point in the discussion, GOP State Rep. Mike Sparks told the room: “I’ll be honest with you. As a state representative, I got health insurance. I feel a little guilty.”
Multiple audience members could be heard responding: “You should.”
In both Utah and Tennessee, many attendees and protesters told CNN on Thursday that they were first-time participants in politics.
Carol McCracken, a 65-year-old Salt Lake City paralegal, said she is “a child of the ‘70s – this is not my first rodeo” in Democratic activism. But she said she hasn’t seen the party’s base as engaged as it is now since then and that she has never seen such high attendance at a congressional town hall.
If the explosion of progressives attending GOP town halls in recent days has in large part been fueled by nationwide opposition to repealing Obamacare, the topic didn’t come up once at the Chaffetz’s event.
Instead, it was a scattershot series of criticisms of Trump – and of Chaffetz for aligning with the President.
When a man asked Chaffetz why he disavowed Trump over the infamous “Access Hollywood” tape – and then backtracked before the election – Chaffetz defended the President, saying he believes “in my heart of hearts” that Trump was the right choice.
“There was no possible way I was ever going to vote for Hillary Clinton,” he said. “No way. Never.”
’We want to get rid of you!’
The crowd erupted in chants of “Do your job!” when Chaffetz, the chairman of the House Oversight Committee, was pressed on why his panel spent months investigating Clinton’s emails but has not yet launched inquiries into Trump’s taxes (Trump has declined to release his tax returns).
“You’re really not going to like this part: The President, under the law, is exempt from the conflict of interest laws,” he said.
Chaffetz received some positive reaction when he called top White House counselor Kellyanne Conway “wrong, wrong, wrong” for promoting Ivanka Trump’s business interests in a TV interview Thursday.
But for the most part, he confronted an angry Democratic base even in deep-red Utah and in a district where he was just re-elected with a margin of victory of 47 percentage points.
Chaffetz nodded several times to the political makeup of his crowd. “You’re going to disagree with this,” he said as he began a defense of the GOP pushing to block Planned Parenthood from receiving federal health care dollars.
The congresman at times seemed to relish the boisterous crowd. He cited Vice President Mike Pence – and then scoffed when the crowd booed, saying that Pence “is, like, the nicest human being.” It only earned more boos.
At one point, he cast new Education Secretary Betsy DeVos – confirmed this week on a 51-50 vote – as a common enemy, touting a bill to abolish the Department of Education and hand all control over schools and their funding to states.
“I want to get rid of Betsy DeVos!” Chaffetz said.
A man in the crowd shot back: “We want to get rid of you!”
CNN’s MJ Lee reported from Murfreesboro, Tennessee. Eric Bradner reported from Cottonwood Heights, Utah. Jeff Simon contributed to this story.