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The Red Phone
Are teleconferencing events held by Ron Johnson and other Republicans the future of town hall meetings – or a regression?

It was a point of pride for Russ Feingold – and a point of attack for Republicans.

Every year, the three-term U.S. senator held a listening session or town hall meeting in each of Wisconsin’s 72 counties. Nobody else in the Senate held as many forums in 2010, according to congress.org.

But this legislative road show became a liability as Republicans packed high school gyms (among other venues) and incited angry confrontations over health care reform, often in front of television news cameras. These clashes helped set the tone for Ron Johnson’s campaign, which relied heavily on criticizing the federal health care law and ultimately defeated the veteran Democrat.

Johnson, however, won’t have to worry about Democrats turning the tables on him. That’s because he holds all of his town hall meetings over the telephone, beyond the reach of TV cameras and news photographers.

According to the Wisconsin senator and his staff, interested constituents sign up for the virtual “forums” at other events where Johnson or aides are present, and at the appointed time, automated dialers ring up at least 40,000 numbers from the list. In the one-hour session that follows, Johnson fields 12 to 15 questions as participants listen in.

“Great technology” is what Johnson calls the setup that he says has allowed him to reach more constituents than Feingold’s in-person meetings. According to aides, the senator was heard by or spoke with 282,778 people during the 22 “tele-town halls” he held during his first two years in office.

The senator also held 179 in-person appearances in Wisconsin during those two years, but none were town halls. Staff couldn’t say how many were open to the public and press, as opposed to those only open to sponsors and other supporters. Nor could aides say how often Johnson took questions from the audiences present at these appearances.

Nationally, Roll Call reports, many Republicans have abandoned traditional town halls in favor of smaller, less-formal sessions and teleconferencing. Like Johnson, these Republicans say communicating by telephone allows them to reach more people for less money, even though tea party activists have taken shots at the idea.

The Wisconsin senator adds that holding large-scale meetings amid the supercharged atmosphere that surrounded Gov. Scott Walker’s moves in 2011 to limit public employee unions “wasn’t the best idea.”

But Johnson denies hiding from controversy and says that he asks call screeners to start each session with a caller who disagrees with him. “I don’t do this for show,” Johnson says. “The public in Wisconsin sees enough of me.”

Lawmakers by Town Hall Appearances

Of all the pols serving Wisconsin in Congress in 2011 and 2012, none can match the sheer number of town halls held by U.S. Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, though his total includes short in-state events he calls "office hours." (Similar meetups known as "Coffee With Your Congressman" further pad U.S. Rep. Sean Duffy's numbers.) Aides for U.S. Rep. Reid Ribble and Sen. Ron Johnson were unable to provide breakdowns of in-person appearances made by their legislator, and numbers were not available on the last House term of freshman Sen. Tammy Baldwin, so she's not listed. Figures for U.S. Rep. Ron Kind and U.S. Rep. Reid Ribble came from staff estimates. All other info was provided by aides.

NOTE: This post was revised to add that figures for Reid Ribble came from staff estimates and to note that confrontations over health care reform "often" occurred in front of television cameras.

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