MIDLOTHIAN, Virginia—It must have been a nice night to be Eric Cantor.
In a semi-full church auditorium in this Richmond suburb Tuesday evening, Republican Rep. Dave Brat faced a murder board of constituent questions about his recent vote to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act. In 2014, Brat defeated then-House Majority Leader Cantor in a shocking primary upset that presaged President Donald Trump’s populist uprising. And, like Trump, Brat spent the evening being reminded of just how quickly a populist lovefest can transform into an angry mob.
“Mob” may be too strong a word. But the crowd that descended on the Clover Hill Assembly of God Church was overwhelmingly hostile to Brat. And while it wasn’t completely devoid of Trump/Brat supporters—Brat asked the crowd at the offset for a show of hands to that effect—the people there hadn’t come out to show any love.
It was obvious even from outside the church. Across the street from the building, dozens of protesters held tombstone-shaped cutouts. One woman was dressed as a grim reaper, complete with long robes and a scythe.
“REPEAL + REPLACE DAVE BRAT!” read one sign.
“HOUSE OF REP. = DEATH SQUADS” said another.
And the news about Trump firing FBI Director James Comey—which broke just an hour before Brat’s town hall started—only galvanized the congressman’s critics.
“He is following Dictator 101 playbook,” Debbi Dean, one of the protesters, said of Trump.
Brat became a surprise star by pushing a conservative, Constitution-focused, idealistic brand of conservative politics. When he primaried Cantor, Brat argued his opponent had lost sight of the principles that should inform Hill conservatives. He was a favorite of Laura Ingraham, Ann Coulter, and Breitbart. One of his first communications staffers on the Hill, Julia Hahn, went on to work for Breitbart and is now an aide to Steve Bannon in the White House.
So faced with hundreds of angry constituents, the congressman had to make an argument that didn’t seem to come naturally to him: that the Republican health-care overhaul didn’t change too much, that it still spent lots of government money, and that it wouldn’t affect many people’s access to insurance.
“On top of that, we funded $120 billion for people in high-risk pools, for these folks with pre-existing conditions,” he said. “And on top of that, we added $20 billion following the Susan Collins model for the invisible risk pools, for people with pre-existing conditions.”
Name-checking the Maine moderate in defense of a health-care overhaul isn’t the kind of thing most Tea Party candidates would imagine themselves doing (and there’s widespread skepticism that the high-risk pools described in the legislation would keep coverage affordable for people with pre-existing conditions).
Brat also argued that the House bill didn’t change as much as his constituents thought. When the town-hall moderator read a question to him about pre-existing conditions—that was the event’s format—he emphasized how much of the status quo the bill keeps intact.
“The only change is 11 million people, and only the states that opt out, and only the person that changes their coverage, and all the money to cover those folks without coverage,” he said. “And so that’s the best I can do for you on that.”
Throughout the event, constituents yelled at Brat—and each other. When another lawmaker participating in the forum, state Sen. Amanda Chase, took a question about her decision to vote against bills to protect LGBT rights, the crowd became particularly heated. A number of people stood and yelled, including a woman near the back of the room a few seats away from a man who had previously identified himself as a Trump supporter. He yelled at her to sit down and shut up, and she yelled back at him that he should sit down and shut up (he was sitting).
He then yelled at her, “Fuck off!”
She pointed her phone at him and he flipped her off. The woman told The Daily Beast after the town hall that her name is Victoria, but said didn’t want to give her last name because people can be fired in Virginia for being LGBT.
“He was a white male, probably sixty-plus, heavy-set, muscular, and I’m obviously slight, female, alone,” she said. “So… yeah.”
At one point in the evening, protesters chanted, “EPA! EPA! EPA!”
And health care wasn’t the only issue to come up. One multi-part question asked the congressman what he thought of the president’s frequent Mar-a-Lago getaways.
“If we don’t ask for answers regarding, No. 1, Russia and, No. 2, Trump’s personal enrichment at the expense of people, will you be at peace?” the question continued.
“No, I won’t be at peace,” Brat said. “We’ll get all of that. We’re looking for any probable evidence on any of it.”
He also said he isn’t calling for a special prosecutor and that the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee should handle the issue. Then he mentioned Mar-a-Lago.
“We gotta work on that, too,” he said.
Another issue he wasn’t thrilled to talk about: the wall.
“That wall hasn’t been defined in any way, shape, or form in legislation yet,” he said, “and so there is no simple yes or no, because it’s a complex issue.”
After the event wrapped up, the congressman fielded another round of questions in a back room from reporters. And he hinted at why the health-care bill is giving Republicans such a bad time. When asked how excited he was about the bill, he took a stoic tack.
“I’m a Calvinist,” he said. “I’m the frozen chosen. I’m an economist. So it’s like—excitement? Whatever.”
“I don’t think people get that excited on policy in general,” he added.