The U.S. Senate contest in Kansas between Pat Roberts and Milton Wolf has, mercifully, entered its final hours.
“New questions to ask Milton Wolf,” Roberts cornerman Leroy Towns taunted a few days ago. “Why did he fail to vote in 28 elections?”
Wolf spokesman Ben Hartman immediately responded — by demanding a debate.
“(Roberts) can ask all the questions he wants. Name a place and time.”
It’s likely you missed this exchange. Too sharp for TV, or the radio or newspaper. It wasn’t on billboards or bumper stickers. Didn’t happen at a county fair, at a weekend parade or in the schoolyard.
You’ll find it on Twitter.
In the Kansas race this summer, as in campaigns large and small across the nation, the toughest language has moved from mass media to the corners of the social Internet — Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest and especially Twitter. It’s become the go-to place for snark, sarcasm and bitterness from candidates and campaigns and the people who follow them.
The name calling isn’t new. It’s been been a part of American politics for two centuries. And carefully written campaign press releases, TV commercials and speeches haven’t disappeared.
But cheap, easy-to-use social media tools have hastened the migration of the roughest stuff from mailers and phone calls to computer screens and smartphones, one 140-character assault at a time.
It also channels the anger within campaigns, giving vent to the pettiness that inevitably takes hold when two camps fight for the same office.
Take, for instance, the Kansas race for governor.
Paul Davis: “#Brownback tax plan 1st sold as adrenaline. Then: experiment. Now he says it’s like surgery. The analogies get increasingly painful.”
Other candidates have used similar language. And supporters of office seekers gleefully hammer each other on Twitter too, sometimes on an hourly basis, sometimes with words that newspapers and TV stations can’t use.
Democrat Bruce Braley and Republican Joni Ernst are campaigning for the open Senate seat in Iowa, where capital letters are apparently popular.
“Bruce Braley (D CAND, IOWA-SEN) is a farmer of LIES,” the conservative website Red State tweeted July 7.
The liberal American Bridge group chimed in July 8: “When the Koch Brothers come galloping in, what’s @joniernst have to say? Basically a rousing YAY!!!”
Yet few campaigns seem to have matched the vitriol in the Kansas GOP primary between Wolf and Roberts.
Both candidates have their own Twitter accounts — Wolf’s campaign says he writes his own tweets, Roberts suggests his — and their exchanges have been lively.
But the real contest has been between spokesmen Towns (@dltowns) and Hartman (@bhartman87). The two have argued over Roberts’ residence, Wolf’s posting of patient X-rays, fundraising and spending, debates, even the outcome in the Mississippi GOP runoff for U.S. Senate.
Towns has posted more than 4,000 times and Hartman roughly 2,500 since opening their accounts. These days, words like “whiner” and “liar” crop up frequently.
Roberts’ campaign retweeted a post calling Wolf “a racist and a fool,” a claim Hartman quickly called “race baiting” — in a tweet.
There are others.
“False claim of a narcissistic candidate,” Towns tweeted back.
July 19, Hartman: “The hypocrisy of @PatRoberts2014 knows no bounds. Runs ad attacking @miltonwolfmd’s TX donors, then holds fundraiser with TX Sen @JohnCornyn.”
Towns the next day: “Milton Wolf, ‘saving the republic,’ one $500,000 RV at a time.” The tweet includes a picture of the Wolf campaign bus.
July 23, from Towns: “Conservative media aghast at Milton Wolf’s medical ethics mess.”
Hartman, the same day: “Why do the Senators from Alaska and Hawaii all travel home more often than @PatRoberts2014 from Kansas?”
Neither spokesman wishes to apologize for the bitter tone of their tweets, nor retract anything they’ve said. Each side blames the other for launching the first spitball.
“Twitter can get pretty raw and nasty,” Towns said, declining to take anything back. “Obviously, sometimes you do a post that you’re not the most proud of.”
Hartman was more defiant: “I absolutely have … no regrets in the issues we have raised and the manner in which we raised them.”
For all the bile, though, consultants and political scientists say they aren’t sure the mudslinging will matter much to voters.
Hartman had 344 Twitter followers Thursday morning. Towns had 561.
“For Roberts and Wolf, I doubt it has any effect at all, except for when it’s picked up and magnified by traditional media outlets,” said Kansas City-based political consultant Marcus Leach.
Indeed, the direct Twitter reach of Roberts and Wolf remains small. At the same time, political parties, conservative and liberal websites, tea party groups, reporters and bloggers can latch on to the bitter exchanges and sling them to their followers, expanding the audience for their disputes.
In an April poll, Gallup found that one in four Americans has shared, liked or retweeted political opinions similar to theirs.
Yet even after all that retweeting, the schoolyard tone of the Roberts-Wolf campaign may be counterproductive for the wider electorate, some experts warned.
Undecided voters aren’t making up their minds based on 140 characters.
“Twitter is the online equivalent of yard signs,” said Democratic consultant Mark Nevins. “It doesn’t provide much in the way of persuasive impact.
“But if you’re not using it, you might as well be invisible.”
Martin Hamburger, another longtime Democratic consultant, agreed.
“It’s not that it’s preaching to the choir,” he said in email, “but it may be telling the choir when to stand up, how loud to sing and when to take a bow.”
Other outsiders said similar exchanges can be found on Facebook and other social media sites, although it’s more rare. And other social sites may seem more tame because they rely more on real names than on Twitter’s potential anonymity.
Anonymous or not, though, campaigns are reluctant to leave anything to chance. A low-cost message alternative like Twitter allows candidates and campaigns to communicate to at least some voters — and no one wants to disarm unilaterally.
Certainly not Leroy Towns or boss Pat Roberts.
“We’re still in the Wild West of it,” Towns said. “It’s crazy.”
Ben Hartman and Milton Wolf are all in too.
“We’re definitely going to push back,” Hartman said. “I will continue to do that.”