Sen. Jerry Moran walked into a town hall buzz saw Monday morning, one with about 500 razor-sharp sets of teeth ready to slice him to ribbons.
Audience members clutched red “disagree” hand signs, which they freely waved as the Republican senator from Kansas riffed on education, infrastructure and climate change.
Moran’s statements on the Affordable Care Act drew the most hoots and complaints.
The Senate is writing the Obamacare replacement bill in secret without hearings. Why is that, senator?
Not my fault, Moran told the crowd. “I wish it was being addressed in a way different than it is,” with hearings and experts and amendments, he said.
That sounds great, an audience member told Moran. You should withhold your vote for the Republican health care bill until you get the hearings you say you want.
It was a perfect suggestion.
The GOP leadership in the Senate can lose only three votes on the party’s health care package, which may come up for a vote this month. At least two Republican senators — Rand Paul of Kentucky and Mike Lee of Utah — are potential no votes.
That makes Moran’s vote critical. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell might even schedule hearings and allow amendments to avoid losing Moran’s support. Sadly, Moran would not commit Monday to weaponizing his vote.
Don’t be surprised. The Republican talks a good game — he wavered on hearings for Obama Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland and waffled on Betsy DeVos as secretary of education — but he is usually a reliable member of the GOP’s middle bench.
That used to be enough in Kansas and many other states. As long as a senator or congressman said the right bipartisan things back home, he or she could cast party-line votes in Washington and not suffer at the voting booth.
That’s no longer the case. Voters on the left and right, aided by the internet and 24-hour cable news, have a much more sophisticated understanding of national politics and how things really work in Washington.
Voting records are just the start of it. Ordinary citizens know about committee structures, how bills make it to the floor, how amendments are offered and whether members of Congress are just paying lip service to an idea.
Those ordinary citizens — tea partiers, resisters, you name it — are holding members like Moran to account.
This is likely to make Moran uncomfortable but not much more. He won’t face voters again until 2022.
But for Republicans such as U.S. Rep. Kevin Yoder of Kansas, the math is much more difficult.
Yoder talks a lot about bipartisanship, not right-wing ideology. Hillary Clinton actually carried Yoder’s 3rd District.
Yet in 2016, Yoder voted with Heritage Action for America, a well-known conservative 501(c)(4) that can take secret donations, 84 percent of the time. He’s more reliably conservative than Rep. Trey Gowdy of South Carolina, Rep. Vicky Hartzler of Missouri or even current Trump Cabinet members Tom Price and Jeff Sessions.
Democrats have a similar challenge. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver talks about moderation in Missouri’s 5th District, but he has one of the most liberal voting records in Congress. If you’re looking for a reason why Cleaver and Yoder duck town halls like the one Moran held Monday, this is a place to start. They know the public now watches its elected representatives carefully.
And it makes a difference.
Kansas lawmakers just voted overwhelmingly to raise taxes. That decision was possible only because voters focused intensely on their choices in 2016, tossing out conservatives and replacing them with moderates.
Those voters were educated and active, smart enough to know the difference between spin and actual policy.
In 2016, Kansas legislators had no place to hide.
Audience members at Moran’s town hall Monday warmly applauded the senator for meeting with constituents. It takes some courage to face 500 people who are mad at you.
But Moran knows voters aren’t interested just in what he says. They’re watching what he does.
If the Senate rams through a health care bill — and Moran still votes yes — they’ll know he surrendered principle for party loyalty.
That will make the next town hall pretty interesting.