Former Republican Rep. Mia Love had gone more than a year without holding a public town hall when she lost her Salt Lake City-area seat in November by less than 700 votes. Her successor, Democratic Rep. Ben McAdams, hosted five during his first three months in office.
By mid-April, Democratic Rep. Abigail Spanberger had held more town halls in central Virginia than the congressman she had just unseated, Republican Dave Brat, held during the entire previous Congress.
And in central New York, Democratic Rep. Antonio Delgado has conducted 11 town halls since taking office—including six during an eight-day span in February. His predecessor, Republican Rep. John Faso, held no in-person town halls in the first quarter of 2017.
All but one of the 43 Democrats who won GOP-held seats last year has held or scheduled at least one open, public meeting in the first four months of the new Congress, and more than 100 events combined, according to data compiled by the research organization LegiStorm. In doing so the new members have fulfilled what was for many a campaign pledge of greater accessibility and fortified their cases for reelection.
"I think the era where you can avoid having those tough conversations is over," said Democratic Rep. Jason Crow, who beat a Republican incumbent in suburban Denver last year. "People in any district, mine included, deserve to know where you stand on issues, and deserve to have transparency."
With more town halls scheduled for the current two-week recess, Democrats are actively highlighting this commitment to interacting with constituents, including expending campaign dollars.
Delgado launched digital ads last week centered on his in-district events, and three freshmen touted their class’s town halls in a Wednesday House floor speech. A day later, Speaker Nancy Pelosi said at her caucus's retreat that such events would help the party hold the majority.
The freshmen provide a stark contrast from last cycle when town halls became increasingly scarce. Just half of the nearly four-dozen Republicans who held seats that flipped to Democrats had hosted public events by mid-April 2017, per LegiStorm data. They hosted some 50 events total, but the bulk of those came from former Rep. David Young of Iowa, who hosted 17 open meetings in the first four months.
Republicans who did hold town halls in 2017 often found them swarmed by irate constituents, particularly those worried about the possible dismantling of the Affordable Care Act. The raucous demonstrations drew negative headlines and sound bites, which emboldened Democrats hoping to capture the majority, and concerned GOP strategists.
A National Republican Congressional Committee official sent an email to members in February 2017 warning that "politically motivated groups" that were "often sponsored by Democrats and their special interest allies" may try to disrupt town halls. "The NRCC is more than happy to discuss more specific ways to interact with constituents without risking your event being overtaken by disruptions,” the email read.
As the number of town halls dwindled, Democrats in battleground districts turned the lack of transparency and presence in the district into a prominent campaign issue. Many ran on pledges to hold forums regularly once elected.
Freshman Democrats now make up 15 percent of the House but have held 31 percent of all congressional town halls, according to Jimmy Dahman, the executive director of the Town Hall Project, a grass-roots organization that tracks lawmakers' public events.
And while less than 40 percent of the 432 members of Congress had hosted a town hall by mid-April, 89 percent of freshman Democrats have, according to the group's data.
Those Democrats so far appear to have avoided the kind of contentious crowds of last cycle even as moderate members in historically Republican districts have been forced to address ambitious policy proposals floated by the Democrats' progressive wing.
In the Salt Lake City suburbs, McAdams has held a town hall in each of the four counties that comprise his district, even though he didn't break 30 percent of the vote in three of them.
"In a district like mine, a lot them are not my supporters," McAdams said in a brief interview. "But I think that people value an opportunity to engage with their representative and either tell me what their concerns are or how they want me to better represent them."
Some of his colleagues have charted a similar path. Spanberger headed to Goochland County, a rural and conservative-leaning swath of her district, to tackle questions on immigration. Rep. Andy Kim heard concerns about climate change in Ocean County, a deep-red part of his central New Jersey seat.
In a Houston-area district once represented by the late George H.W. Bush, freshman Democratic Rep. Lizzie Fletcher said she fielded some questions from constituents remarking on the "boldness of the economic proposal" behind some progressive-agenda items. Her approach has been to stress pragmatism.
"It's good to have big ideas out there," she said, paraphrasing her response at the event. "It’s also good to be moving forward legislation that is going to have a real impact, that we can get through."
Republicans are eagerly observing the growing number of public forums from the new Democratic majority. America Rising, a GOP-aligned opposition research firm, has monitored the events through trackers and live streams.
"Those who campaigned as moderates are being forced to answer for far-left proposals, like the Green New Deal and Medicare-for-all, for the first time," said Samantha Cotten, a spokeswoman for the group.
That mirrors the Democrats' strategy last cycle.
Republican Rep. Mike Coffman of Colorado, who lost his seat to Crow, faced a slew of negative media attention after he was taped ducking out early from a community event in early 2017. And in March of that year, Rep. Pete Sessions told a jeering crowd in Richardson, Texas: "You don't know how to listen."
Both incidents made it into campaign ads last year. Still, some Democrats appear undeterred.
"Town halls are about doing the right thing," said Democratic Rep. Max Rose of New York, who faced constituents last month who were upset over comments made by fellow Democratic Rep. Ilhan Omar on U.S.-Israel relations. "We’re only rowdy in New York. We’re rowdy when we’re happy, we’re rowdy when we’re upset. We’re only rowdy."