WILLINGBORO, NEW JERSEY
The sheer level of rage felt by US representative Tom MacArthur’s constituents was apparent from the very beginning of his recent town hall. The two-term New Jersey congressman was back in his home state fielding questions during a two-week recess in Washington. It was the first time he’d met with his voters since penning an amendment that essentially revived president Donald Trump’s much-loathed health care bill, the American Health Care Act (AHCA).
The “MacArthur amendment” has turned the former insurance CEO from a relative unknown into a name on all Washington-watchers’ lips—for better or for worse. Emboldened by a wave of anti-Trump opposition, Democrats are preparing to fight for once-safe seats like MacArthur’s. And, with polling guru Nate Silver saying there’s a chance of an “anti-Trump/GOP landslide” in 2018 midterm elections, you can bet the AHCA vote will feature heavily in campaign ads.
Facing down a room full of furious voters, MacArthur began the evening with a story about the death of his 11-year-old daughter from a rare brain condition. The audience doesn’t let him get far through it.
“Shame on you!” shouted one constituent. “We know that story!” screams another. “You’re politicizing her!” yells a third. It doesn’t take MacArthur long to snap: “I would say shame on you, actually… I’m not going to tell you about Grace’s life because obviously you don’t care.”
A successful businessman and former small-town mayor, MacArthur is what counts for a moderate in today’s Washington. Before 2017, MacArthur was ranked the 15th most bipartisan and 25th most liberal House Republican by Govtrack according to his voting record, and was in the top 15% of all representatives in the Lugar Center’s Bipartisanship Index. He knows these figures by heart and recites them painstakingly.
But the crowd in the small, majority-African American town of Willingboro doesn’t want to hear it. MacArthur may have won re-election in New Jersey’s 3rd district by over 20 points in 2016, but he won only 12% of the vote here—and that was before he began siding with Trump on 93% of votes in the House.
Constituents are angry about Russia and they’re angry about Trump’s authoritarian tendencies but they’re livid about what they see as him selling them down the river on healthcare. MacArthur had promised them in March that he wouldn’t support a bill that tries “to pull the rug out from 21 million people” insured under Obamacare. But he played a crucial role in the negotiations that convinced a majority of GOP representatives to vote Trump’s bill through in early May. While MacArthur tried to insist there won’t be a rollback of crucial coverage in the state, according to one study, the AHCA threatens 500,000 in New Jersey alone.
This seeming about-face has fueled a groundswell of opposition activism that has been building since Trump’s shocking victory in November. The hundreds of protesters who gathered outside MacArthur’s town hall couldn’t even fit in the small venue. (MacArthur explained he likes to hold these events “in the round” to enable conversation). Many attendees referenced the Indivisible movement, an organization which aims to combat Trumpism by mirroring the local activist tactics of the Tea Party. Around half the people Quartz interviewed had never attended a town hall before, and MacArthur said the number of phone calls his office has received since January was already close to matching the roughly 30,000-40,000 calls made during his previous two-year term.
MacArthur tried his best to distance himself from Trump, at one point even saying he “didn’t come here to defend the president tonight,” but that narrative didn’t fly with attendees.
“He has mobilized me. I have become more active than I have ever been—I’ve put my foot to the pedal, I’m active now and I’m not going to give up,” said Anastasia Gray, a nurse and lifelong Democrat who voted for MacArthur in 2016 but says she will never cross party lines again. “I voted for him because I looked at his record and he was a progressive… I am so disgusted with myself and with what I did.”
Retirees and high school students alike spoke of the election as a turning point in their political awakenings. “I’m definitely seeing more people [at school] discussing, and they’re interested and they’re knowledgeable and want to contribute to a discussion and a debate,” said 18-year-old Joseph Zetkulic, who attended the town hall with six other students. Zetkulic said he was already excited about the idea of running for local or state office when he finishes college. “I think it’s a double-edged sword that Trump was elected, because we are now given the opportunity in our college years to get involved in what is definitely going to be one of the most historic elections in US history.”
This fierce grassroots response has not gone unnoticed by Democratic leadership, who now believe they may be able to challenge the Republicans’ 45-seat majority in the House. Even as House Republicans celebrated the passing of the AHCA on May 4, Democrats jeeringly sang, “Na na na na, na na na na, hey hey hey, goodbye” on the House floor—a reference to the seats the GOP may lose next election. Some in Willingboro mimicked the chant throughout the town hall. And with races like a recent special election in conservative Kansas seeing the GOP’s victory margin drop from 31 points in 2016 to 7 points months later, MacArthur’s seat does seem increasingly winnable. Indeed, despite MacArthur taking 59% of the vote in November, the Democrats have put it on their list of target seats for the 2018 mid-term elections.
Andrew Kim, a former national security official in president Obama’s White House who grew up in MacArthur’s district, is one of MacArthur’s potential challengers. “The hope is that we can really build on this energy that’s out there and make it something real and make them into emerging political communities,” says Kim, 34, a Rhodes scholar with a PhD in international relations from Oxford. “What we saw yesterday at town hall is what I’m seeing all over the place. There’s a lot of anger and a lot of that is from people who voted Republican and independent as well as Democrat.”
MacArthur listened to constituents for five full hours, answering the mostly hostile questions with relative calm—but, admirable as this was, it’s not clear that either his or the crowd’s views had budged an inch by the end. This is not necessarily surprising, but it does speak to the highly partisan nature of politics in America today. Trump has done nothing to bridge this divide, and as MacArthur’s experience suggests, he’s likely making it worse. Despite MacArthur’s comparative centrism in a Republican party that has shifted dramatically to the right over the past two decades, the representative’s views and those of these constituents seem so opposed as to be irreconcilable on nearly every matter raised.
An exchange between MacArthur and Geoff Ginter, a constituent terrified that preexisting conditions would result in skyrocketing health care costs for his wife and children, exemplified this dynamic. As the event reached its fourth hour, Ginter embarked on a 10-minute tirade about the “horrible bill from a horrible group of people.”
At one point, MacArthur chided the raucous crowd with a despairing lecture. “Before you scream, it’s very interesting—I hear people calling their congressman an idiot, I hear people shouting out vulgarities,” MacArthur says. “I really wonder how any of you would perform in Congress if you were there with that attitude. I wonder because you have to work with people that agree with you and disagree with you. Friends, this is part of what’s wrong with America—there’s no civil discourse.”
Time and again, on matters where MacArthur and the constituents differed, he pointed out that voters agree with him once he drives “across the pine barrens” to the coastal part of the district. Jack Fairchild, a 42-year-old fire protection engineer in the audience, said the attitude left him questioning whether MacArthur understood America’s republican nature: “The way he was talking was like we were in a democracy, where the majority of the people rule—but we’re in a republic, where every individual person has a say,” he said. “Do I think the congressman changed the views of anyone in the audience? Probably not to his benefit.”
Nor did anyone hold out much hope that they’d swayed MacArthur’s views. “He’s had town halls before and had similar responses there—it didn’t seem to impact his decision to stick with the healthcare bill,” said Priscilla Robinson, who had traveled the 40 miles from the other side of the district. Ultimately, the evening was a show of extreme frustration, a chance to rally those newly engaged in politics—and perhaps a warning of challenges to come.
Adam Freelander contributed to this report.