WATERLOO, Nebraska — Rep. Don Bacon seemed to know he was in for a tense night.
Speaking at a packed town hall at a sports bar in his suburban Omaha swing district, the gun-control skeptic went straight to the topic he knew was “on most people’s minds:” last weekend’s massacres in El Paso, Texas and Dayton, Ohio.
“This is an American tragedy. We grieve together. And I deplore anybody [who] brings in partisanship within days of a tragedy like this. That's not acceptable,” the Republican congressman said in opening remarks Wednesday night, mentioning his support for some very small-bore gun control legislation and calling for Americans to come together and reject “any hate.”
With that, he opened things up to the attendees — and took a barrage of questions on guns and President Donald Trump.
“Will you support a ban on assault weapons and background checks for all? And will you condemn Trump’s racist rhetoric?” asked Velvet Langley, a 41-year-old activist.
“I view the 99% of our citizens as law-abiding citizens who deserve Second Amendment rights,” he said to cheers from the pro-gun segment of the crowd and icy glares from Langley and other Democrats.
“I totally disagree with the characterization that Trump is racist. I think it does us a disservice,” Bacon continued. “I've criticized the president on some of his communications … but when you start calling someone racist, that triples- and quadruples-down the nastiness of this.”
“Well, you should talk to the president and tell him not to say hateful things, and then I wouldn’t be scared in my own state,” Langley said to applause from the partisans on her side.
Bacon’s charged town hall emblemizes suburban Republicans’ dilemma. Trump’s vicious rhetoric cost many of them their seats in 2018. The president’s recent racist attacks on four of their non-white Democratic colleagues, followed a week later by the murder of 22 people in El Paso by an apparent white supremacist who used language that echoes some of Trump’s, has only made things worse for the few that remain.
Bacon and his colleagues are torn between the need to woo the moderates increasingly repulsed by Trump and the risk of alienating their base. That's become even harder with emotions high after last weekend's massacres.
“They’re in a hell of a box.”
There are only three House Republicans left in districts that President Trump lost in 2016 — the rest got wiped out in 2018. Most of those came in suburban districts like Bacon’s. He barely survived, winning with 51% of the vote — in a district that Trump carried with a 48% plurality two years earlier — against a weak opponent. He may get lucky twice; Democrat Kara Eastman is running once again, though she has a primary. But it’s clear he’ll have a fight on his hands.
There’s been a notable shift on gun control in recent years as mass shooting after mass shooting has impacted the public consciousness — and suburban voters are especially in favor of the measures. A July NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll found that an overwhelming 89% of Americans supported strengthening background checks like closing the gun show loophole, and 57% supported banning the sale of semi-automatic assault-style weapons. Those numbers are higher among suburbanites: 92% of those polled wanted tightened background checks, and 62% wanted to ban assault weapons. Trump’s job approval in that poll was 44%, and just 41% among suburbanites.
A number of Bacon's suburban colleagues have decided in recent weeks to quit rather than face tough re-election fights. Texas GOP Reps. Will Hurd, Kenny Marchant and Pete Olson announced their retirements, following earlier decisions from Reps. Rob Woodall (R-Ga.) and Susan Brooks (R-Ind.).
Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R-Fla.) lost re-election in a diverse, suburban-heavy district last fall largely because of the damage Trump did to the Republican Party brand in districts like his — and warned his fate is a forerunner for all previously Republican suburban districts if the party can’t change its rhetoric and opposition to gun control.
“People want commonsense gun reform, they want immigration reform that honors the rule of law and is compassionate at the same time. They reject the grotesque rhetoric,” he said. “Republicans are not deep in the minority; they are within striking distance. But they’re moving in the wrong direction.”
Bacon doesn’t have to look far for an example of yet another suburban moderate Republican recoiling from the president. Nebraska state Sen. John McCollister tweeted after the shootings that the Republican Party is “enabling white supremacy,” Trump is “stoking racist fears” while GOP lawmakers “look the other way and say nothing” to avoid antagonizing him and his supporters.
McCollister, who represents part of Omaha and whose father was a congressman, told VICE News that he was frustrated that Bacon and other Republicans hadn’t shown the backbone to stand up to Trump and call out racism.
“Moral leadership needs to come from the party, and we haven’t seen much of that quality,” he said.
Bacon was deft and respectful of his critics at the town hall, calling gun control a “tough issue” and giving Democrats chances to respond throughout.
He expressed a tentative openness to “red flag” laws that would in limited circumstances bar mentally ill or violent people from buying guns, though he took the same line as the NRA on the matter — that the devil was in the details and that he’d need to know it wouldn’t block anyone suffering from any mental health issues, like veterans with post-traumatic stress, from seeking treatment.
And he’s looked for other ways to split with Trump, voicing support for immigration reform.
On Wednesday, Bacon faced a divided crowd, but one that leaned his way. Many Republicans, some sporting NRA and MAGA hats, got there over an hour early to pack the meeting and make a show of support. When a dozen activists from Moms Demand Action and a few others from the liberal group Indivisible arrived a half hour before the event, the hundred-person room was already at capacity and they couldn’t get in. But anyone who tried to attend got to submit a question. Almost half of the ones his staff drew from a bin and read aloud to him concerned his positions on assault weapons, background checks and other gun control measures, as well as his views of Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric.
The crowd mostly stayed Midwestern nice, with tensions expressed by snide remarks and sidelong looks rather than shouts and jeers. But there were plenty of tense moments.
Most Republicans have mimicked Bacon’s resistance to fully condemning Trump. But there are signs of some shifts in Republican lawmakers’ attitudes on guns after the latest massacres.
Rep. Mike Turner, who represents a Dayton-anchored swing district in Congress and used to be the town’s mayor, announced he now supports red flag laws as well as restrictions on assault weapon sales and gun magazine capacities. Illinois Rep. Adam Kinzinger, who sits in a fairly safely suburban and exurban Republican seat, came out in support of red flag laws, universal background checks, raising the gun-buying age to 21, a banning some high-capacity gun magazines.
“Republicans are not deep in the minority; they are within striking distance. But they’re moving in the wrong direction.”
Trump himself has talked up red flag laws and flirted with backing legislation that would close loopholes in the federal background check system — bills that House Democrats have passed but have stalled in the GOP-controlled Senate. And on Thursday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) told a local radio show that red-flag and background check legislation are "two items that for sure will be front and center” when the Senate returns from its August recess — a remarkable if cryptic comment given his staunch, career-long alliance with the National Rifle Association.
Bacon admitted to VICE News after the town hall that Trump’s rhetoric had “undermined” suburban Republicans heading into 2018, said suburban voters in districts like his “want a more diplomatic tone” from the president.
Trump shows no signs of changing, and it’s unclear whether there will be any real movement for substantive legislation in the coming months.
Bacon might be politically damned either way, stuck between Trump’s base and Second Amendment absolutists and the moderates repulsed by him and increasingly alarmed by the uptick in white supremacist violence and steady tick of mass murders.
“They’re in a hell of a box,” said McCollister.
Cover: UNITED STATES - MAY 15: Rep. Don Bacon, R-Neb., speaks during the press conference outside the Capitol to launch the Servicewomen & Women Veterans Congressional Caucus on Wednesday, May 15, 2019. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call via AP Images)