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In NY, GOP freshman faces backlash over health care vote

In this photo taken Nov. 8, 2016, then-New York's 19th Congressional District Republican candidate, now-Rep. John Faso, R-N.Y., talks with media members after voting in Kinderhook, N.Y. On the job little more than four months, Faso is facing a political firestorm in his own backyard that threatens to consume his first term in Congress just as it begins. (AP Photo/Mike Groll, File)

KINDERHOOK, N.Y. (AP) — The patrons at the cafe next door want him out. A rival congressman has “adopted” his district. And more than a half dozen Democrats are preparing to run against him.

On the job little more than four months, Republican Rep. John Faso is facing a political firestorm in his own upstate New York backyard that threatens to consume his first term in Congress just as it begins.

The cause? He is among 217 Republicans who voted last week for a health care bill that analysts say would cause 24 million people to lose insurance over the next decade, including tens of thousands of people in his rural district two hours north of New York City. Worse, critics say, the bill weakens protections for people with pre-existing conditions, even after Faso promised to safeguard coverage for such people in an emotional embrace — caught on video — with a seriously ill constituent.

“He hugged me and he promised he would take care of us,” said Andrea Mitchell, a 35-year-old mother of two who has suffered multiple strokes and has a benign tumor in her brain.

“Whether or not he intended to lie and deceive his constituents, he did do that,” she told The Associated Press this week. “I don’t think there’s any chance that Faso will be re-elected.”

As a freshman in a swing district, Faso was a top Democratic target even before the health care fallout. He is now considered one of the most vulnerable Republican incumbents in the nation as the GOP works to navigate the messy politics of an unpopular health care plan 18 months before the midterm elections.

Faso defiantly defends his vote.

In an interview, he dismissed key findings from the Congressional Budget Office predicting widespread health insurance losses and higher health care costs for the elderly in some cases, along with overwhelming opposition from independent groups like the American Medical Association and AARP.

Citing no evidence, Faso told AP that it’s possible no one in his district would lose insurance. And people with pre-existing conditions? “They’re treated no differently,” he said.

“I think that there is a lot of confusion out there. And all of us need to do a better job of communicating,” he said.

Like many of his Republican colleagues, Faso has largely avoided town hall-style meetings with constituents as the health care debate rages across the country.

He attended a political fundraiser in Albany on Monday night instead of a health care town hall in his district organized by Democrats that attracted several hundred people. An empty stool at the front of the room marked Faso’s absence. Angry constituents waved signs like “No Show Faso” and “Repeal and Replace Faso.”

A congressman from a neighboring district, Democratic Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, addressed Faso’s constituents for more than two hours.

“Where the heck is your congressman?” Maloney asked before taking several questions about the health care plan. He added, “He may be upset that I am in his district. But I will just point out that he is not.”

Maloney’s appearance was the first in a movement that Democratic activists are calling “Adopt-A-District” in places where Republicans aren’t holding town halls. Democrats are planning similar events in Republican-held districts in Massachusetts, Arizona and Wisconsin — home to Speaker Paul Ryan — during this week’s congressional recess.

The events, backed by rounds of fresh advertising targeting vulnerable Republicans like Faso this week, is boosting Democratic recruitment efforts across the country.

At least six Democrats who have launched campaigns or are considering runs attended the Monday town hall, including 28-year-old Gareth Rhodes, a former aide to Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

“It’s one thing to have a representative that doesn’t get things done. It’s another thing to have one that is actively working against your community,” Rhodes said, citing projections that more than 60,000 people in Faso’s district would lose health insurance under the Republican plan.

Faso doesn’t have to look far to find signs of political peril. At a cafe just two doors down from his district office, angry patrons railed against his health care vote during a recent lunch break even as Faso staffers passed by.

“It’s a disaster,” 80-year-old Ed Simonsen said as he shared a pastrami sandwich with his wife of 60 years, Barbara. “Right now, it looks like he’s going to be bounced in ’18.”

“Nobody’s burned a cross on his front yard yet, so he’s got that going for him,” said Tom Butcher, 59, who owns a local tree care company.

Among more than 10 patrons interviewed in the cafe, not one supported Faso or the GOP health care plan.

But two miles down the road, inside Valatie’s Main Street Diner, 78-year-old Jane Merrifield said she voted for Faso last fall and may do so again.

“I’ll have to wait and see,” said the registered Republican. “Everybody’s judging him on this bill. He’s only been in for what — a few months? Let’s give him a chance.”

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AP writer Bill Barrow in Atlanta contributed to this report.

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This version corrects the spelling of Gareth Rhodes.

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