You have to hand it to U.S. Rep. Martha McSally: Faced with the possibility that she would look cowardly for refusing to hold an open-topic town hall, she figured out a way to outmaneuver local constituents who were hoping to tarnish her carefully polished image of a fighter who is standing up to Washington.
Under growing pressure to attend a town hall, McSally hastily scheduled one in Sahuarita last Thursday, Feb. 23, while a group of her constituents hosted their own "McSally Take a Stand" town hall in Tucson.
McSally has steered away from open-topic town halls, preferring to do town halls via conference call or appear at workplaces like IBM and Raytheon (where people who might challenge her would be inhibited by the presence of their bosses) or at senior centers.
McSally's reluctance to do a traditional town hall was understandable, given the way that Tea Party activists used them during the Obama administration to challenge Democratic members of Congress and the way that Democrats have flipped the script and are now using them to challenge Republican members of Congress.
Various constituents met with members of McSally's staff, including District Director C.J. Karamargin (a former local newspaper reporter and communications director for Gabby Giffords when she held the seat that McSally now has), to request a town hall. Karamargin had the job of telling them that it either wasn't going to happen or that something might be in the works.
But after a bunch of protestors showed up at McSally's office to deliver petitions requesting a town hall, McSally herself quietly asked a handful of the leaders up to her office to discuss the idea of town hall. Accounts of the meeting vary, but several of those women who were in the meeting say that McSally shifted from sympathetic to condescending in her conversation with them. At the end of the meeting, McSally said she'd try to work with them to schedule some kind of town hall.
As a result, the women involved agreed to hold off on their plan to host the "McSally Take a Stand" town hall without McSally, where they would discuss various issues and try to suss out McSally's stance on them—which can be challenging, given that McSally will often sidestep controversial details, such as what exactly the "replace" portion of the plan to repeal-and-replace Obamacare involves.
At the same time, McSally did a town hall via conference call and said that she wasn't attending the McSally Take a Stand town hall because it amounted to "political theater" and a "political ambush."
The organizers of the McSally Take a Stand town hall insist that they wanted a civil exchange and not a contentious event, as some town halls around the country have become.
Marion Chubon, the founder of McSally Take a Stand, says she was looking for a way "to engage with (McSally) in a meaningful way."
Chubon said her group "truly is motivated by civil discourse and having her represent us. This wasn't a trap."
Chubon says she's not a professional political activist; she's a 49-year-old local mom who has a crafting business and her previous political activity amountd to walking her neighborhood on behalf of Gabby Giffords.
But she decided to get more involved in politics after Trump's election and wanted to see McSally hold a town hall.
"Honestly, I can't believe that anyone thinks what's happening in Washington is OK," Chubon says. "I understand there are political machinations at work but it is lunacy up there. (McSally) is a leader of our community and we need her to reassure us she's taking care of us."
As a Jewish woman, Chubon is particularly concerned about Trump strategist Steve Bannon. "My son is 14 and terrified about this administration," she says. "After the election, and after I had assured him that there was no way this man could become president, I had to have some answers for my child."
Likewise, Kristen Randall, who has launched a local branch of the national Indivisible movement, is new to the political scene. Randall, 34, is a registered Republican; the hydrology scientist grew up in a Republican family in New York, but says she discovered a much more conservative breed of Republican when she moved to Arizona.
"I was an informed voter but never really engaged," Randall says. "I see my party really changing and moving in an extreme direction and I wanted Martha McSally to tell us, what is the temperature in Washington, D.C?"
After the women met with McSally, they continued to bug Karamargin about having a town hall and he continued to say that no decision had been made. So Chubon, Randall and their allies moved forward with their McSally Take a Stand town hall. And the next day, McSally announced that she would be having her own town hall: On the same day, but down in Sahuarita, a few hours earlier than the McSally Take a Stand town hall.
Chubon says she had to laugh out loud when she saw what McSally had done.
"Doesn't it feel like political theater and an ambush?" Chubon asks. "I'm disappointed in the lack of transparency. It didn't seem like (McSally's staff) were talking to us in good faith. It felt like it they were misleading us."
Randall likewise says she also feels like McSally is the one directing the political theater performance, especially since McSally's staff didn't let her know McSally was planning a separate town hall, even though she had been trying to work with them.
"I feel kind of snubbed," she says. "We are very specifically looking to engage with our members of Congress. I'm not a strategist, but I feel like she's been getting this bad press because my group and Marion's group have been pushing this narrative about her not having a town hall. So I feel like this was a trap."
If McSally was hoping that she'd get a more supportive audience at her Sahuarita town hall, she was mistaken. The crowd pressed her on a variety of issues, including her support for repealing the Affordable Care Act, eliminating funding for Planned Parenthood and generally supporting the Trump administration. (The FiveThirtyEight.com website is tracking how the votes of members of Congress on major issues line up with the Trump administration; through Feb. 16, when Congress recessed, McSally had a perfect score of 100 percent.)
With her military background and fundraising prowess, McSally is a rising star in the GOP. But she represents one of the most competitive districts in the nation and if Democrats can recruit a credible challenger (and there's no guarantee of that!), she'll have a real race on her hands if Trump's approval numbers don't improve significantly between now and the 2018 midterms.