So much for “Iowa Nice.”
Rowdy town hall forums are the new normal in the Hawkeye state. Contentious scenes of older, grey-haired Iowans lobbing hostile questions at Senators Chuck Grassley and Joni Ernst made national news this week. Grassroots anger, enthusiasm and organization has even taken some Democrats by surprise here, in a state that saw a 15-point margin shift from Barack Obama to Donald Trump in the general election.
The pressure had been building for weeks. Republicans took complete control of Iowa’s state government in the 2016 election, the first time in 20 years, and have quickly rammed through a far-right agenda. Already, legislative forums for state representatives and senators have seen turnouts in the hundreds of angry, sign-waving constituents.
So when the Congressional recess arrived, activists were ready.
Unlike in most other states, many Iowa Republican elected officials are still holding public meetings. Three of the state’s five federally-elected Republicans – Grassley, Ernst and Congressman David Young – hosted open town hall forums this week.
Each Republican approached their town hall differently. Grassley stuck to his typical demeanor of matter-of-fact answers and the occasional dry joke. Ernst acted like the protesters weren’t even there and tried to conduct her veterans forum like it was a normal event, angering the crowd further. Young shook hands with people as they arrived, said Trump should release his taxes, and generally portrayed a more moderate image.
But all receptions they faced were harsh and overwhelmingly anti-Trump.
Ernst’s crowd chanted “Your last term!” as she entered the room and “Investigate Trump!” as she tried to explain her position on Russia. Her event was nominally billed as a veterans roundtable, but hundreds showed up for other issues as it was her only public event of the week.
“You’re the man that talked about death panels,” Chris Petersen, a well-known Iowa farmer, told Grassley in Iowa Falls. “You’re going to create one big death panel in this country if people can’t afford insurance!”
“Please explain to us, your Iowa constituency, your hypocrisy and willingness to ignore the Constitution,” an attendee said to Grassley in Charles City.
And a woman in Urbandale asking about pipelines poured David Young a glass of water that came from an oil spill and encouraged him to drink it. When Young later lamented that his healthcare premiums were rising too, the crowd jeered and laughed.
It was a stark turn of events for the state that delivered Trump his biggest swing state victory last November. Over 300 came out for Ernst’s event in Maquoketa, population: 6,000. Donald Trump won the county with 57%, a dramatic improvement over Mitt Romney’s 41% in 2012. And yet the room had the passion of a Bernie Sanders rally, though with one difference – many of the attendees were older, retired women.
What impressed Iowa politics watchers, however, is that the turnouts largely happened on their own. The state party and the major unions have been so consumed with the battle at the Statehouse that they didn’t have time to actively drive their members to the events. A state progressive advocacy group pushed some Facebook events into the areas around the forums, but that was about it.
Instead, a ragtag collection of newly-formed online groups, working mostly on Facebook, took the lead. There wasn’t much higher-up direction for it – their activists simply saw what was happening elsewhere in the country and decided to replicate it here. And there certainly was no payment from some shadowy national Democratic group – a point many attendees joked about. Several brought signs that read “Iowa resident – not paid.”
Virginia Kelly, a retired 65-year-old educator, attended the Ernst forum in Maquoketa, 6 hours away from her home in Spirit Lake, Iowa. She first saw the event details on Iowa’s Indivisible Facebook group, the new network of grassroots volunteers that already has a chapter in each of the state’s 150 legislative districts. Describing herself as “mildly to moderately active” in politics before 2016, she’s become much more involved since.
“The Betsy DeVos thing is about as pathetic as political appointees get,” Kelly said, noting that her friends have started getting calls from for-profit schools testing the waters in Iowa to see if parents would accept vouchers.
“The crowd was a little raucous,” she admitted, but put the blame on Ernst’s light public schedule. “There’s a fine line there because those people were not being given an opportunity to air their grievances with this senator. When you put yourself in that situation, you have to accept the fact that you’re going to have controversy.”
Ernst stayed at her event for only 45 minutes before heading out the door, with about half that time being spent on Department of Veterans Affairs issues. A crowd of nearly 100 followed her to a waiting car, shouting “shame!” as she left.
“I think she was a little surprised and, frankly, quite intimidated by the size of the crowd,” Kelly said.
Many who came to see Grassley were attending their first political town hall. Amanda Malaski, 35, drove a half hour to Grassley’s Iowa Falls event, which she found out about from posts on Indivisible, Action Iowa and the Women’s March Facebook pages. She now heads up her local Indivisible group.
“Like a lot of people, I was caught by surprise by the Republican landslide,” Malaski said. “I had been somewhat politically involved before, but got complacent under Obama. My husband and I went to the Women’s March and my take-away from that was don’t let that energy go away. So I started looking for volunteer opportunities.”
Many new faces filled Congressman Young’s forum in Urbandale as well. In the midst of the biggest week yet of town hall furor, Young did the opposite of his conservative colleagues: he announced a “pop-up” forum over the lunchtime hour in Polk County, home to Des Moines, a Democratic stronghold.
While some attendees were annoyed with the 24-hour notice, it actually benefited the protesters and Democrats. Central Iowa Democrats’ social media feeds were quickly flooded with people sharing the event information just minutes after it was announced.
Young handled his well, though he likely didn’t change many minds – the best he could probably hope for is that the liberal attendees decide that they won’t volunteer against his campaign in 2018.
While Republicans are hoping this storm of voter outrage passes, a moment from Ernst’s event showed why some are so hesitant to hold these forums: a verbal misstep caught on camera that could have lasting implications.
“I am almost always aware of the issue before me,” Ernst awkwardly hedged when a veteran continually pressed her on whether she’d ever voted to reduce veterans’ benefits. The crowd exploded at the “almost” caveat.
But the newly-engaged Iowans who showed up this week vow that this is only the beginning.
“This is the beginning easy steps,” Malaski said of her work with Indivisible in a rural county. “There’s definitely a growth in being an informed activist.”
Their next goals: raising money, recruiting candidates and organizing for the 2018 elections.