On Capitol Hill, Freedom Caucus chairman Mark Meadows carries a reputation of a right-wing rebel – after he and his group of roughly three dozen hard-line House conservatives helped kill the Republican health care bill last month. But back home in his western North Carolina congressional district, Meadows is hailed a hero.
“That was kind of gutsy for him to do that,” said Carla Craig, sitting outside Mehri’s antique shop in historic downtown Hendersonville. “I’m sure there are a lot of people in North Carolina who wanted him to get on the Trump train and vote to pass it, but he didn’t.”
Craig is retired although she still works part-time.
“I was concerned that Trump was just going to sign any replacement for Obamacare without considering whether it was going to lowering premiums, and from what I heard from the Freedom Caucus was that it was not going to lower premiums,” she added. “And then what were the people that supported Trump going do when their premiums continued to go up? So I was kind of happy that it failed as it did.”
Bill Lures moved to Hendersonville from Richmond, Va., six years ago. Like Carla Craig, he’s also semi-retired and has strong feelings about Meadows.
“Meadows, he’s kind of trying to say, ‘Hey, let’s not rush this through. Let’s just take our time,'” said Lures. “However, everybody’s going, ‘For crying out loud, you had four years, let’s do it.’ But he’s putting the brakes on it. He’s catching a lot of heat for it.”
The heat is in Washington, not here in Hendersonville, where many of Meadows’s constituents speak highly of him and his approach. That holds true about 10 miles away, up a winding mountain road in the farming town of Mills River, N.C.
“Those of us who do support the [Freedom] Caucus and its members and what they do feel like it’s about time that someone speaks up for those of us who are solidly conservative individuals, and we’re just grateful that they are out there,” said Larry Freeman, who pulls double duty as the mayor of Mills River and the voice of the local talk radio station, WHKP.
A District Drawn Red
Meadows’ 11th district is best known for being home to North Carolina’s share of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It was also once known as the most politically competitive district in the entire state — one that was represented by a moderate Democrat, the former NFL quarterback Heath Shuler.
But in 2011, North Carolina’s Republican legislature redrew the district’s lines, turning it solidly red. Meadows ran for Congress the following year and won his race handily. In the two elections since 2012, the 57-year-old has increased his margins of victory.
Despite his solid footing, liberal groups are taking a shot.
Democrats ‘Getting Ready to Rally’
Chelsea White is a Democrat who grew up in the district. After the election, she co-founded a grassroots group called Progressive Nation WNC.
“We are pretty upset about it,” White said of the Republican effort to dismantle the Affordable Care Act. “We do think that while he [Meadows] voted against the repeal, he did it for the wrong reasons. I know I’m not alone in this … we’re actually getting ready to rally around this over the congressional recess.”
Chelsea says her group is focused on preserving the Affordable Care Act and opposing Mark Meadows. It’s going to be an uphill battle — up one of the steepest mountains in the region.
“We’re talking about a third-term member of Congress, who’s winning with large margins in a district that was never nationally prominent until this moment,” said Chris Cooper, a political science professor at Western Carolina University. “So I think that’s one of his connections to the district. He’s given this district a name and a face in a way that it probably didn’t feel like it had before.”
And that’s the dilemma facing Republican leaders in Washington, who try to reign in the conservative Freedom Caucus and its chairman.
Mark Meadows has little incentive to moderate, since most voters in his district are eager to support him.
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