HENDERSONVILLE, N.C. — In rural western North Carolina, faith runs deep. It is a place where a two-hour stretch of highway has more Baptist churches than houses and local law enforcement officers pray together before starting a lunch meeting.
Right now, Rep. Mark Meadows, the local congressman, is banking on his constituents having faith in him, even if they are not sure what he is up to.
“I have faith in my congressman and one thing that I have learned in (the sheriff’s) office is listening to these members in the legislature, in these bills, unless you actually read this bill you don’t know what the bill is,” said Macon County Sheriff Robert Holland, who is a Republican. “I have to rely on my congressman.”
In the nation’s Capitol, Meadows and the fiery band of hardline conservatives he leads — known as the House Freedom Caucus — were the critical force behind the March implosion of the Republican bill to repeal and replace Obamacare.
Repeal and replace has been a core promise of Republicans since the law passed in 2010, but Meadows does not appear to be suffering from the failure of the GOP-controlled Congress to deliver on that promise.
“I have enough faith in him that I believe if he’s talked to enough of his constituents, that it’s just not a good bill … that’s not the bill for us and I believe that he will fight to get that bill where it needs to be,” Holland said.
“We understand that it’s easy to have opinions when you don’t know the whole story,” said Henderson County Sheriff Charles McDonald, who describes himself as conservative. “Even people who were going kind of, ‘Well, gee, gosh I wonder if this is exactly the right thing’ you know I think they look at his heart and say, ‘You know, he’s got more information than we do, we trust him to do the right thing, he knows what we want — we’re going to support him.’”
In reaction to the bill’s failure, President Trump threatened to find primary candidates to challenge Meadows and other members of the Freedom Caucus. But USA TODAY spent two days traveling with Meadows as he met with constituents, and the notion that someone could run successfully against him seems far off. Meadows remains broadly popular here — he won the district by 28 points in November — and even some Democrats say they like his work on behalf of the district.
Lenoir, N.C., Mayor Joe Gibbons is a long-time Democrat and considers Meadows a friend. He said that while the two disagree on many of the larger policy issues, Meadows has been an ally on local issues. They’ve worked together to try to secure community development block grants and are trying to build a new fire station in his town. And even though Meadows is a hardline conservative, Gibbons believes he’s the right person to represent the 11th district in Congress.
“I do, I really do think he has been and will, I hope, continue to be,” the right person for the job, Gibbons said.
“I think most people are starting to believe that trust is being returned," Meadows told USA TODAY. "They know that I’m not in this for personal gain and that even though they may not understand totally what I’m fighting for or the policy nuances, they do know that I’m fighting for them and that’s the most important thing to me.”
Meadows and his wife toured Kellex Furniture, located in Valdese, N.C., Wednesday. The company’s president, Chris Rice, told USA TODAY while this is the first time the congressman came to the factory, it is not the first time Rice has seen Meadows in the community. As Meadows walked through the sprawling factory he introduced himself to nearly every employee and shook his or her hand.
The district is overwhelmingly Republican, but Democratic Rep. Heath Shuler held the seat from 2007 until he retired in 2012. The prospect of Shuler getting re-elected had dimmed after North Carolina approved a redistricting map in 2011 which put far more Republicans into the district. Meadows won his first election in 2012 by almost 15 points.
“He is very in tune, I believe, with is constituents. I know that his team, they put a lot of people on the ground that actually reach out to constituents to hear their opinions and get the facts about the situation,” said Jennifer Greene, the executive director of the North Carolina Christmas Tree Association, which represents growers from across the state — though the majority of the Christmas trees grown in the state come from Meadows district. “That’s one thing about Congressman Meadows and his team. They want to make factual decisions.”
Meadows may have won the majority of voters last fall, but the congressman isn’t without his critics. It just might be harder for them to face-off with him directly because he hasn’t had a town hall since last summer. A network of activists is trying to get Meadows to participate in a town hall on April 23 in support of “Medicare for all.” Meadows spokesman Ben Williamson said that the congressman has no plans to attend because, “We’ve always held our town halls over the August recess and plan to do the same this year.”
“Meadows continues to ignore us, saying he will 'have a town hall in August,' and that’s unacceptable," the event description on Facebook says.
“What people are saying is, 'Meadows’ constituents support his strong stance,' but what they’re leaving out of this picture is this massive number of progressive and unaffiliated voters who are absolutely not supportive of what he’s trying to do with the (Affordable Care Act). So that story is being missed," Matt Coffay, the founder of the progressive activist organization Our Revolution's Asheville chapter told USA TODAY. Coffay's group is the primary organizer for the April event.
Meadows' district includes parts of Asheville, a progressive pocket in the state, where an estimated 7,000 people showed up for the Women’s March following Trump’s inauguration, according to the Asheville Police Department. At the January event marchers expressed concern over losing health care coverage with an Obamacare repeal and the defunding of Planned Parenthood, which Meadows is also committed to.
Even among his conservative base, Meadows is beginning to face questions on another topic: immigration. The heavily agricultural district relies on immigrant workers to produce its farm products and voters here worry that any effort to remove undocumented immigrants could cripple their economy.
During a question and answer session with high school students, two different students asked Meadows about immigration. One specifically asked what he planned to do about undocumented immigrants facing deportation — Meadows said he didn't have a good solution but acknowledged law abiding immigrants were critical to the area.
"The big fear is ICE arresting and removing labor in the fields ... growers are planting fewer acres because they worry there will not be enough labor to harvest the crops," said Mills River Mayor Larry Freeman, who is a Republican, adding he supports criminals being deported but law abiding undocumented immigrants should be allowed to stay. “The simple fact of the matter is: These people we’re talking about, the immigrants who are involved in agriculture labor, they’re taking no one’s jobs."
President Trump campaigned heavily on a tough on immigration stance, vowing to build a wall along the southern border that Mexico would pay for and to kick out all undocumented immigrants, letting only "really good people" back in. Shortly after becoming president he strengthened law enforcement's authority to deport undocumented immigrants, a move that Meadows praised.
“It’s high time we kept our promise. I applaud President Trump for acting on his commitments and keeping the security of the American people a top priority," Meadows said at the time.
Congress has not yet taken up a broad immigration debate, but when it does, Meadows may be forced to walk a tight line between the president he is closely aligned with and the people who have put their faith in him to help keep their farms staffed.