Not even an hour had passed before the @PAGOP criticism of Democratic Senate candidate Katie McGinty commenced. News had trickled out of a probable McGinty Senate run weeks before she officially announced, and the people behind @PAGOP, the official Twitter account of the Pennsylvania Republican Party, started brainstorming ways to criticize her record as a political candidate. They timed her official announcement for the Senate last week with the release of a website, mcgintyforsenate.com, showing how she finished fourth in the Democratic gubernatorial primary last year.
“Once it became clear she was going to run we tried to think of interesting ways to remind people of her past performances,” says Megan Sweeney, the Pennsylvania GOP’s communications director.
Instead of promoting beliefs, candidates or proposed legislation in a wooden demeanor — as many official political accounts do — @PAGOP has also been confronting the Democratic Party on social media and usually in swift fashion. They’ve taken screenshots of tweets Democratic lawmakers have deleted, started fake websites and constantly rebutted points made by Gov. Tom Wolf on Twitter. The account has nearly 12,000 followers, and, not surprisingly considering this is politics, a few detractors. Mike Mikus, who heads the new Wolf PAC Rebuild Pennsylvania and has previously worked with McGinty, describes the Pennsylvania GOP’s social media strategy as nonexistent.
“I think it’s a joke,” Mikus said. “That’s the only way I can describe it. From a person that works in the profession I look at it and scratch my head.”
Sweeney, others in the Pennsylvania Republicans’ communications department and digital director Stan Olshefski run @PAGOP from the party’s headquarters in Harrisburg. Per party protocol, Sweeney declined to make Olshefski available to speak for this article.
Sweeney says her department and Olshefski don’t have a major formula for checking on Twitter and keeping track of news. She says they generally check it throughout the day on their phones and computers while completing other assignments.
They clearly check it enough to ensure rapid response times to @PAGOP targets. Last month, for instance, Wolf’s staff tweeted from his account that the governor was visiting the Phoenixville Area School District. @PAGOP responded 20 minutes later that Wolf’s tax plan under his proposed budget would cause people in Phoenixville to experience a heavier tax burden.
Sweeney says that it’s been in the last year, particularly during the debates, that they started trying to initiate quick reactions against opponents via the Twitter account. She declined to give specifics about what is off limits for @PAGOP, but says the account usually tries to rebuff Wolf and others by bringing up claims the party thinks should be addressed.
“We try to be as active … and aggressive in sharing our Republican message as possible. We use it as a means to hold people accountable,” Sweeney said.
Wolf has been bearing the brunt of @PAGOP’s comments since before he was elected governor. @PAGOP called Wolf and others running for the Democratic nomination the #DTeam. During his campaign, Wolf often didn’t get too specific about his budget plan for the state, saying he’d need time to crunch the numbers. @PAGOP continually challenged him on this, especially during last summer’s budget season, even making a fake Wolf budget site like they did for McGinty’s senate campaign.
No matter how often the @PAGOP account nudges the @GovernorTomWolf account, they probably won’t get a reaction.
“It’s pretty much irrelevant to us,” says Jeff Sheridan, Wolf’s press secretary.
Sheridan says Wolf’s account exists to share messages and administration priorities with the public and that the account will sometimes engage with followers, particularly during the Twitter town halls Wolf has conducted. As for responding to @PAGOP?
“I could care less about them,” Sheridan says.
Wolf is opposing @PAGOP in another way, though. He created the Rebuild Pennsylvania PAC in June, which has plans to promote Wolf’s agenda and other Democratic candidates. Its Twitter account, @RebuildPA, has taken a combative tone, similar to that of @PAGOP.
Mikus says @RebuildPA takes on issues and criticizes candidates as part of a greater strategy, separating it from @PAGOP.
“You want to effectively communicate your message and get your point across,” he says, “and I think what the other side does is engage in juvenile smears that aren’t done with any thought.”
Says Sweeney: “I’m not shocked that they’re not supportive of us publishing facts on social media, but you know it certainly appears we’ve had a lot of success with our Twitter account and pushing out our message. So we’re just letting the people decide.”
For as often as @PAGOP goes after opponents, most of its mentions are surprisingly positive. Sweeney says the account will usually respond to critical mentions if it can counter the claim with other information.
Sweeney considers two of the @PAGOP handle’s biggest accomplishments the McGinty for Senate website and a screencap it took last year of Rep. Patty Kim talking about raising taxes.
Kim deleted the Tweet, but it lives on forever @PAGOP. The Twitter account continuously brought up Kim’s words throughout last year’s election season.
“It’s a way,” Sweeney says, “we should be getting our message out.”