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Dems Lay Low as Town Hall Angst Rages  02/24 06:14

   NEW YORK (AP) -- From Montana to West Virginia, the nation's most vulnerable 
Senate Democrats are avoiding town hall meetings as their Republican 
counterparts get pummeled by an energized electorate frustrated with President 
Donald Trump's early agenda.

   Some Democrats prefer to connect with constituents over the telephone or 
social media. Others are meeting voters in controlled environments with limited 
opportunities to ask questions. But few of the 10 Democratic senators facing 
re-election next year in states carried by Trump have scheduled in-person town 
hall meetings during this week's congressional recess.

   Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill declined an invitation to attend a town hall 
organized by a group called Kansas City Indivisible this weekend, deciding to 
send a staff member in her place. The two-term senator, up for re-election next 
year in a state Trump won by nearly 19 percentage points, is scheduled to chat 
with voters next week on Facebook Live.

   "Seems to me that all these members of Congress are afraid to face their 
constituents," said Hillary Shields, a volunteer organizer with the Kansas City 
group.

   The cautious approach comes as Senate Democrats work to limit risks ahead of 
a challenging 2018 election season. After claiming the Senate majority in 2014, 
Republicans could win a filibuster-proof 60-vote Senate majority next year in 
an election in which Democrats are defending 25 seats (23 held by Democrats, 
two by independents) --- 10 in states carried by Trump.

   The GOP has a 52-48 edge in the Senate.

   There are no easy answers for Democrats like McCaskill, pushed to stand up 
to the Republican president by their liberal base and pulled to cooperate with 
the GOP by independents and moderates.

   McCaskill's office declined to comment, but noted she spent part of this 
week touring the U.S.-Mexico border and planned to host town halls later in the 
year.

   The political pressure is particularly intense for West Virginia Sen. Joe 
Manchin and North Dakota Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, Democrats whose states backed 
Trump by an average of 39 percentage points in November.

   Both have avoided formal town halls this week, but Heitkamp's office said 
she participated in a discussion about flood issues with constituents in 
northeastern North Dakota and attended a subsequent ribbon cutting on Thursday. 
She planned to tour a local National Weather Service office on Friday.

   Manchin's office reported an equally busy schedule, but his constituents 
said he's been hard to find this week. They've scheduled a protest outside the 
Democratic senator's Charleston office on Friday to demand more access, 
according to Cathy Kunkel, an energy consultant who helped plan the protest.

   "Here we are, and we'd like a town hall meeting," Kunkel said. "His 
constituents have a lot of questions. This is the first recess of the new 
Congress in the Trump administration."

   As skittish Democrats dodge, many Republicans face an outpouring of anger in 
public meetings across the nation from constituents fired up over Trump's first 
steps as president. Republicans like Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and 
Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton have been yelled at, heckled and booed in recent days.

   Some Republicans have avoided such confrontations. Texas Rep. Louie Gohmert 
evoked the near-fatal shooting of former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords to explain why 
he's only holding telephone town halls. Giffords on Thursday urged members of 
Congress to "have some courage" and face their constituents.

   Yet few vulnerable Senate Democrats are expected to do so in settings that 
allow for unscripted questions.

   In Montana, where Trump prevailed by 20 percentage points, Sen. Jon Tester 
made several public appearances this week, but he did not advertise any of them 
as town halls. He answered questions about Scott Pruitt, Trump's new chief of 
the Environmental Protection Agency, at one event about climate change, said 
spokeswoman Marnee Banks.

   In Pennsylvania, a spokeswoman for Sen. Bob Casey said he would host a town 
hall in early March, but the details hadn't yet been set. In Florida, Sen. Bill 
Nelson addressed students at two Thursday appearances focused on education. And 
in Ohio, Sen. Sherrod Brown "has participated in several telephone conference 
calls recently" and his office "emailed surveys out to constituents" to gauge 
their priorities, said spokeswoman Jennifer Donohue.

   For now, protesters' angst is largely focused on Republicans. But only a few 
weeks ago Democrats including Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and liberal 
heroine Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren faced a sharp rebuke for backing 
one of Trump's Cabinet picks.

   "Grassroots Democrats won't be shy about challenging their own leaders if 
they sense a whiff of cooperation with the Trump agenda," said Ben Wikler, 
Washington director for the liberal group MoveOn.org.

   It's unclear if they'll get the chance with certain Senate Democrats, 
however.

   Shields noted that McCaskill made time to visit the Mexican border: "We'd 
like to have her back in Missouri."


(KA)

 
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