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The differences between real grassroots and 'Astroturf' matter

The White House wants congressional Republicans to ignore progressive protests. The electoral risk for the GOP is enormous.
Image: Protestors Rally At JFK Airport Against Muslim Immigration Ban
Protestors rally during a protest against the Muslim immigration ban at John F. Kennedy International Airport on January 28, 2017 in New York City.
To get a sense of a congressional district's political leanings, there's a helpful metric called the Partisan Voter Index, or PVI, created 20 years ago by the Cook Political Report. Districts that lean slightly towards Democrats might have a PVI of D+2 or D+3. Districts that are safely in Republican hands might show a PVI of R+10 or greater.I mention this because Tennessee's 2nd congressional district has a PVI of R+20, making it one of the reddest districts in a red state in a red region. Its representative, Jimmy Duncan Jr. (R), has routinely run for re-election without an opponent, and a Democrat hasn't won a congressional race in this district since the 1850s -- several years before the Civil War.And yet, despite all of this, even Jimmy Duncan Jr. -- in his R+20 district -- appears worried about local protestors who support "Obamacare." TPM reported yesterday:

Constituents requesting that Rep. Jimmy Duncan Jr. (R-TN) hold a town hall on repealing the Affordable Care Act aren't being met with a polite brushoff from staffers anymore. Instead, Duncan's office has started sending out a form letter telling them point-blank that he has no intention to hold any town hall meetings."I am not going to hold town hall meetings in this atmosphere, because they would very quickly turn into shouting opportunities for extremists, kooks and radicals," the letter read, according to a copy obtained by the Maryville Daily Times.

Do you think progressive activism has captured Republicans' attention?It's against this backdrop that the White House would prefer GOP lawmakers just go along with whatever Donald Trump wants, without regard to polls or protests. In fact, Sean Spicer, the president's press secretary, told Fox News' Brian Kilmeade yesterday that organized demonstrations against the administration and its agenda shouldn't be taken seriously at all:

KILMEADE: Do you sense, instead of being organic disruption, do you sense that there is an organized pushback and people are being paid to protest?SPICER: Oh, absolutely. Protesting has become a profession now. They have every right to do that, don't get me wrong. But I think that we need to call it what it is. It's not these organic uprisings that we have seen through the last several decades. The tea party was a very organic movement. This has become a very paid Astroturf-type movement.

Spicer doesn't appear to have any idea what he's talking about. Much of the tea party activism in 2009 and 2010 was bolstered, at least in part, by wealthy conservative benefactors who invested considerable resources into the effort. For that matter, there's literally zero evidence that any of the recent anti-Trump activism is being bankrolled by anyone on the left.All of this dovetails nicely, though, with the president's embrace of the "paid protestor" talking point, which Trump clings to with great vigor, assuming that he's so wildly popular, the only reason Americans would speak out against him is if they're being paid.That's absurd, of course, and it's an electoral risk that should make many Republicans nervous. After all, Trump won't be on the ballot for nearly four years, but every GOP House member and a third of the Senate Republicans will be up next year.They're the ones who may face a backlash; they're the ones who may lose control of Congress; and they're the ones who'll soon confront the realization there's nothing fake about the recent growth in progressive activism.