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Florida Republicans Facing Town Hall Backlash

Republican members of Florida’s Congressional Delegations have found themselves confronting angry constituents at recent town hall meetings. The move is part of a backlash from Democrats over the Presidential election. But how long will that anger last?

Newly-elected North Florida Congressman Matt Gaetz held nine town hall meetings in his northwest Florida district. All of them met with protestors. Gaetz chose to stay, and discuss his position on repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act, as well as the future of the Medicaid program for the poor.

"If we took the Medicaid program and block granted it to the state's and allowed them to manage utilization and work requirements, I think we'd cover the right people, the people truly in need," he said as protestors chanted "shame on you" outside.

Meanwhile in Tallahassee, a far smaller crowd gathered at city hall after learning Congressman Neil Dunn would be in town. Dunn agreed to meet with a small group of people inside, but didn’t address the larger crowd outdoors as they chanted, "come on out, Dr. Dunn!"

The Tallahassee Democrat captured the scene as Tallahassee resident Claudia Sperber blasted Dunn’s move. She was one of seven people who met with Dunn inside city hall.

“Dr. Dunn really refused to come out and take a few minutes from his schedule. He was willing to talk to us, but he was afraid to talk to you. He ran out the back door to avoid speaking to us," she says.

Sperber later said Dunn and his driver ran a red light in their SUV while trying to get away from the group.

This angry backlash comes in the wake of President Donald Trump’s election. He won Florida by just 1 percentage point. Republicans now control Florida’s executive and legislative branch, including those at the federal level—leaving Democrats in the cold. The backlash against Republicans is drawing comparisons to similar moves made during the start of the Tea Party when President Barack Obama was pushing the Affordable Care Act: but University of South Florida Political Scientist Susan McManus says the comparison isn’t completely accurate, at least not in Florida.

“There were tea party groups, hundreds in Florida, and they were even endorsing different candidates. So it was not the organized coordinated effort at protesting you see currently by the Democrats at the town hall meetings of various congress members back home on recess," McManus says. 

Yet, the anger is real. The question is, is it sustainable? And can Democrats use it to their advantage in the upcoming state election cycle?

“It is hard historically it’s very hard to sustain the level to sustain the level of anger at the federal government in a presidential year and its aftermath in a midterm election where you have the governor, cabinet and others being elected because a lot of people don’t relate to the state government as they relate to the federal government," McManus says.

She says elected officials know that if someone is angry enough to come out to a town hall, they’re angry enough to vote. But what’s not known is if those at such events are representative of the majority opinion. Still, she says, it’s proving more beneficial for Republicans who speak to their protestors, than those who don’t:

“One thing we have seen very clearly is that the Republicans who are bold enough to face angry crowds as opposed to having phone conversations or phone in town halls are getting much louder more applause even from their opponents, but certainly better coverage from the news media across the state.”

Many recent town hall meetings have been anything but civil. A point recently made by Florida U.S. Senator Marco Rubio when confronted by constituents about why he isn’t hosting such meetings. The exchange was captured on video and posted on twitter by Thomas Kennedy, chairman of the Miami-Dade progressive caucus:

When asked if he'll hold a town hall, Rubio replied, " No, man,  because people get mean and stupid on both sides.”

“There’s a fine line between outrage, and not letting others who have a different viewpoint express themselves. So we’ve seen a bit of backlash on that in some places," says USF's McManus.

She says there are also still some big unknowns. Florida’s voting trends show more and more people flocking to third parties or registering under the independent and No Party Affiliation banner. Many of them are younger voters, who don’t side with either party. And these same younger faces are also showing up at town halls. She says regardless of what happens in the long run:

“Believe me, the noises are being heard loud and clear by all officials, at all levels, not just congress.”

Copyright 2020 WFSU. To see more, visit WFSU.

Lynn Hatter is a Florida A&M University graduate with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. Lynn has served as reporter/producer for WFSU since 2007 with education and health care issues as her key coverage areas. She is an award-winning member of the Capital Press Corps and has participated in the NPR Kaiser Health News Reporting Partnership and NPR Education Initiative. When she’s not working, Lynn spends her time watching sci-fi and action movies, writing her own books, going on long walks through the woods, traveling and exploring antique stores. Follow Lynn Hatter on Twitter: @HatterLynn.