The first congressional recess of the new Trump presidency tested Republicans in their own districts, as protesters turned out for town halls to challenge their representatives' support for the new administration. But as lawmakers returned to Washington from their oftentimes tumultuous break, questions about the lasting influence of the protests remained.
So-called "Indivisible" groups of Democrats united in protest popped up in congressional districts across the nation in the days after the Women's March on Jan. 21, as voters looked for ways to continue the resistance against President Donald Trump's policies. The march took place one day after President Trump was inaugurated.
Democratic opposition has continued to swell since the party's surprising Election Day loss and its protesters have started to use new tactics to keep up their momentum. Ironically, their new approach is inspired by Tea Party members who succeeded in pushing the Republican Party further to the right and away from making compromise deals with then-President Barack Obama.
Indivisible members have started using social media and a 22-page manual posted online as a guide for getting through to members of Congress. These Democratic voters argue their concerns should matter to their Republican representatives.
In the Republican majority state of Arizona – where Donald Trump beat Hillary Clinton by an almost 4 percentage point margin – some Indivisible members already are thinking about U.S. House elections in 2018.
"Arizona right now is 5-4 Republican-Democrat, so we're going to work hard to flip that," said Michael Johnson, co-organizer of Indivisible Surprise, Arizona. He spoke after leading a "Resist Trump Tuesdays" demonstration outside the offices of Senators Jeff Flake and John McCain.
Johnson said outreach to independents through voter drives and high visibility events like weekly protests will remind Republican senators that they will be held accountable for President Trump's actions.
"The legislature needs to hold Trump accountable and remind him that he's not CEO of the United States, he's president of the United States," Johnson told VOA.
Seeking face time
The demonstrations have drawn hundreds in four weeks of existence, and covered issues ranging from concerns about the repeal of the Affordable Care Act to encouraging closer examination of Trump's Cabinet nominees. The national health care reform, known as Obamacare, was President Obama's signature legislative achievement.
The group's goal of getting through to senators during District Work Week proved to be much harder than anticipated. Senators McCain and Flake declined to schedule any public events during which they would interact with voters. The protesters repeatedly tried to march into the senators' offices to discuss their concerns and schedule a meeting, but those efforts failed.
"They have to represent all the people – not just the people who voted for him," said Indivisible Phoenix co-organizer Tanya Luken, after speaking with Senator Flake's state director about the group's concerns.
Luken said the group has adapted its efforts to meet the requests of congressional offices – from limiting their questions to one to two topics a week to providing names and addresses of the demonstrators to disprove Republican allegations that they're not paid protesters.
The demonstrators held up signs outside their representatives' offices expressing concerns ranging from the repeal and replacement of the Affordable Care Act, to questions about President Trump's dealings with Russia, cuts to the Environmental Protection Agency and the qualifications of his Cabinet nominees.
Luken said she had long believed her elected officials did not represent her values or beliefs, but did not know how to hold them accountable until she found the Indivisible guide online.
Broadening the appeal of Indivisible groups to reach out to voters across the aisle could be a significant challenge in conservative districts across the nation, like the strongly Republican congressional districts in and around Phoenix.
Freedom Caucus Congressman Trent Franks – whose district includes the city of Phoenix – did not even have a Democratic challenger in the 2016 election. In the neighboring congressional District 4, covering a mainly rural conservative region, Rep. Paul Gosar defeated his Democratic opponent by more than 40 percentage points.
Gosar followed the lead of more than 200 congressional Republicans nationwide who either avoided or changed their district work week plans. Gosar changed a planned in-person town hall conversation with fellow Freedom Caucus Rep. Dave Brat to a teleconference just two days before the event, frustrating the more than 150 activists who had planned to attend and ask him questions.
Instead they stood on the main street of tiny Gold Canyon with signs and chicken uniforms, chanting their frustration. The protests drew some beeps and thumbs up from passing motorists along with very pointed and prolonged thumbs down from others.
"Everybody's got a right to come out here and say what they feel. That's what makes America America," said Trump supporter Terry Curtin, who drove by the protests but felt he had to stop to support the president. "The Tea Party was about changing the Republican Party internally – this has got nothing to go with that – this is just more attack Trump, attack Trump."
For Pinal County Democratic Party chair Dave Coward – who drew voters from all around the congressional district to fill Gosar's town hall – the district work week protests are just the beginning to tap into voter frustration.
"I don't think they're going to put up with it much longer. So I don't think he – or any Republican in this state – should feel comfortable because I think there's going to be a backlash."