ROSS TOWNSHIP, PENNSYLVANIA — It’s usually pretty quiet outside Rep. Keith Rothfus’ (R) Ross Township office.
But that changes every Wednesday, when dozens of the congressman’s constituents gather outside his nondescript doors to demand that he hold a town hall meeting. Each week, since February 2017, organizers have rallied about a different topic important to the people of the 17th district, which is made up mostly of the suburbs surrounding Pittsburgh. This week their focus was on protections for people with pre-existing conditions. About 25 attendees held colorful signs, with some dressed up in costumes. Passers-by cheered them on and drivers honked their horns to proclaim their support.
It seems that the surrounding community has come to recognize the organizers of “Where’s Rothfus Wednesday” better than they recognize the congressman himself.
There’s a reason for that. Rothfus is hardly ever seen in public. The three-term incumbent hasn’t met with his constituents in an open forum since he was re-elected in 2016. And his constituents are fed up.
“The one time, there was a lady and an older guy who went in and tried to talk to him and he acted like he was physically very much afraid of having anyone approach him,” said rally-goer Chris Underwood, who has attended the protests almost every week.
“He’s in serious trouble. I don’t see how he’s going to win and I’ll tell you why. You’ll see people driving by here and I see housewives in Lexuses honking for us,” Underwood told ThinkProgress. “So I think he’s in a world of hurt.”
Underwood may be right. The PA-17 race between Rothfus and Rep. Conor Lamb (D) — a unique contest between two incumbents — was recently bumped from Democratic Toss-Up to Lean Democratic on the Cook Political Report. A recent poll has Lamb leading Rothfus by double digits. It’s a major change from Rothfus’ days as the representative of Pennsylvania’s safely Republican 12th district, where Donald Trump beat Hillary Clinton by more than 21 points in 2016. Thanks to court-ordered redistricting, however, much of Rothfus’ base has been cut out of the newly redrawn 17th district, where Trump beat Clinton by only 2.5 points.
Rothfus has voted with Trump almost 90 percent of the time, but it’s his support for the president’s health care policies that have hit his constituents the hardest. Few have forgotten his endorsement of the disastrous, and ultimately unsuccessful, American Health Care Act, which would have repealed the Affordable Care Act (ACA), leaving millions of people uninsured.
“With the current administration, all care of all people who need, seriously need, anything, is not only ignored, but it’s intentionally squashed as much as possible,” said attendee Chris Feld, a former psychiatric advanced practice nurse. “It’s hard to understand how people who are supposed to represent our government can do this to our people and especially to people who are the most needy.”
Trump’s continued assaults on the Affordable Care Act — most recently, his decision not to defend the law in court, arguing that protections for people with pre-existing conditions are unconstitutional — have jeopardized coverage for more than 426,000 Pennsylvanians who have insurance through Obamacare, about 155,000 of which live in western Pennsylvania, where Rothfus serves. More than 5 million Pennsylvanians have a pre-existing condition, making it a critical issue in the Rothfus/Lamb race.
“In a Trump world and in a Keith Rothfus world, people like me, maybe we get Medicare, maybe we don’t,” said Stacey Vernallis, a former lawyer, who was diagnosed with sudden onset cardiomyopathy in 2013. At the time, she was a single working mother of three children in college who ultimately ended up losing her job. After searching for insurance on the Obamacare exchanges, she found a plan that had more benefits than the one offered by her former employer.
“Having the market require coverage for pre-existing conditions, regardless of how expensive I was, that saved my life,” she told ThinkProgress, adding that by the time she made it through surgery and treatment, she was “a $1.6 million woman at that point.”
“I have made it my life’s work to live out the phrase, ‘nevertheless, she pre-existed,’ because women are — by nature of how we reproduce and live in this world — walking pre-existing conditions,” Vernallis said.
Vernallis’ story reflects the concerns of many in Allegheny County, who view health care as a right.
“I have a minor pre-existing condition. It’s nothing big and I’m thankful that it’s not something major, but for other people, I’ve seen how it can affect them,” said Brittany Sheets, Pennsylvania regional communications director for the nonprofit For Our Future.
“There was a period of time for about a month and a half where I didn’t have health insurance, so I couldn’t go and get the medication that I needed,” Sheets, who has a B12 deficiency, told ThinkProgress. “It was too expensive and I couldn’t afford it … So I’ve had thankfully only a small taste of what the stresses of other people are.”
While Rothfus’ constituents suffer the results of his policy agenda, it is likely that he will, too. In the nearby former 18th congressional district, where Conor Lamb beat Rick Saccone (R) in the March special election to replace Rep. Tim Murphy (R), health care was a major driver of votes.
According to exit polling, Saccone’s support of the GOP health care plan — specifically, efforts to repeal the ACA — made 41 percent of voters less likely to vote for him, despite the fact that the district went to Trump by 20 points in 2016.
The Where’s Rothfus Wednesday crew have been a rowdy reminder of these statistics — and they aren’t going anywhere: They plan to stakeout Rothfus’ office until the November election.
It’s no wonder Rothfus has been hiding.