Bob Casey, Jr. at AFL CIO 2009

Bob Casey, Jr. at AFL CIO 2009

By Bill Burke/Page One, for the AFLCIO, via Wikimedia Commons

What turned US Sen. Bob Casey into an aggressive progressive all of a sudden?

“There’s almost a level of exasperation to how the senator is tweeting,” an aide told Billy Penn.

U.S. Sen. Bob Casey hasn’t always been a GIF man. But his communications staff has brought him around. Every morning, they have a 15-minute communications check-in when they discuss issues, articles and thoughts for the senator to share that day. The GIF that changed the lawmaker’s mind? One that featured comedian Amy Schumer, a relative of Casey’s caucus boss, NY Sen. Chuck Schumer:

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Casey, Pennsylvania’s Democratic senator up for reelection in 2018, has, in short, stepped up his Twitter game. Casey’s official Twitter account has 134,000 followers — nearly 70,000 more than Sen. Pat Toomey, a Republican who was in one of the most high-profile Senate races in the country just last November. (Though Twitter Audit, a site that rates accounts based on their ratio of “real” followers, gives Casey’s Twitter a 63 percent score; Toomey’s account earned a 96 percent.)

A significant chunk of Casey’s followers have come in the post-Trump-in-the-White-House days. Since the election, Casey’s office has taken every opportunity to repudiate Trump, especially on Twitter. The tweet with the most engagement ever sent from Casey’s account was this snarky message sent on Feb. 8:

This new, saltier social media prowess is a significant shift for the politician once known for being an even-keeled moderate, not only in tone but in policy.

‘More fiery and aggressive’

Casey, the son of former Gov. Bob Casey Sr., won his Senate seat in 2006 by running on a pro-gun, pro-life platform. Now, he’s been described as “an evangelist” for gun control. As airport protests occurred nationwide over President Trump’s travel ban in late January, images of Casey joining one at the Philadelphia International Airport in a tuxedo went viral. Last week, Casey — though he personally opposes abortion — held a press conference at a Planned Parenthood location in Upper Darby to tout his efforts to protect federal funding for women’s health services.

“I will work with [Trump] where I can and hold him accountable where I must. President Trump promised to be a champion for working people and middle class families, yet instead of putting forth plans to rebuild our crumbling infrastructure, he’s pushed obscene tax cuts for millionaires,” Casey told Billy Penn in a statement. “If President Trump gets serious and fights for the middle class then I’ll join him, but if he continues to pursue policies that adversely impact Pennsylvania families then I will fight him like hell.”

The move toward a hot-blooded, more left Casey (at least on Twitter) comes as the senator is inching toward his bid for reelection in 2018. He was seen as one of the more vulnerable Democrats heading into the midterms, and GOP wins in November for both Trump and Toomey only made Casey’s position more precarious.

But so far, just two Republicans have filed paperwork with the Federal Elections Commission to run against Casey in 2018. The most prominent of those is Republican state Sen. Rick Saccone, a decidedly pro-Trump pol from western Pennsylvania. The other is Andrew Schecktor, a former Trump delegate and a borough councilman in Berwick.

Jacklin Rhoads, Casey’s press secretary, admitted that the senator’s approach has intensified recently.

“The senator has been more fiery and aggressive [on social media] since the election,” she said. “I don’t think we had a conversation that we had to be specifically more fiery, I think the senator just kind of became that way — as many congressional Democrats have become. [We are in] much more of a defending role than we had been prior.”

Terry Madonna, a Franklin and Marshall pollster and a leading expert on Pennsylvania politics, said he doesn’t think Casey is “overly concerned” about being unseated, especially by a state senator. The last time an incumbent U.S. senator in Pennsylvania was unseated by someone who didn’t hold statewide office or a seat in Congress was in 1956, when incumbent Republican James H. Huff was defeated by Joseph Clark, the Democratic nominee and former mayor of Philadelphia.

“When we see the senator changing, I don’t see much in the way of a difference than what’s going on with many other Democrats,” Madonna said. “His party has changed. I think some of his thinking has changed. I don’t find it terribly unusual that there’s an evolution as the times change.”

The social strategy

Whether Casey’s “overly concerned” or not about his position, the strategy is clear: Oppose Trump every chance he gets. Larry Ceisler, a Philadelphia-based political strategist and principal of Ceisler Media and Issue Advocacy, said at this point, it doesn’t matter who runs against Casey. “A re-election is not about the opponent, it’s about the incumbent,” he explained.

“My guess is that the election is going to be a) a referendum on Bob Casey, but like a1) it’s going to be a referendum on Donald Trump,” Ceisler said, “whoever the opponent is.”

Exhibit A of Casey’s blanket rejection of Trump is his social media presence. Just after Trump tweeted last week that he was demanding an investigation into House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s “close ties to Russia,” Casey’s official account tweeted a West Wing GIF at him:

Other tweets have drawn large responses, like this one about fellow Democrat Sen. Elizabeth Warren that prominently featured the thinking emoji:

Or this tweet from January that amassed 20,000 likes, in which Casey vowed to “fight like hell” against attempts to suppress voting:

Naomi S. Baron, a linguist at American University and the author of Words Onscreen: The Fate of Reading in a Digital World, said a shift in social media tone is a means of altering one’s image for something “somewhat different, like when someone changes their glasses.”

In the early days of political Twitter, which coincided with Obama’s first presidential campaign, Baron recalled, electeds were more formal on the platform. That’s all changed now. Twitter’s user base has gotten younger, and millennials tend to favor informality in writing and use more loose styles consistently across Facebook, Snapchat and Instagram too.

“That’s the kind of style that’s particularly common in social media,” said Baron. A 56-year-old senator embracing that code makes sense, “for the same reason that older people don’t want to sound like old folks in face-to-face conversation.”

It’s young people who largely run Casey’s communications apparatus. Digital Director Adam Wells, 33, runs the senator’s Twitter account with the help of Rhoads, 30, and Communications Director John Rizzo, also 30.

Casey sends his staffers thoughts throughout the day, even into the late hours. “He’s a night owl,” Rhoads said in an email, “so we get tweet ideas from him into the evening where you will see there is substantial activity.” When Casey left the Academy of Music’s Annual Ball in his tuxedo for the Philadelphia International Airport protest, where five immigrants were detained at the time, he called his communications team from the cab on the way.

“The senator will come up with something he wants to say and leaves it to us to distill it into 140 characters,” Wells, Casey’s digital director, explained. Take this, which Casey’s office tweeted after members at the Trump-owned Mar-a-Lago resort captured Trump, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, and their aides reacting to news of a North Korean missile test on a patio, in full view of diners there. Photos of Trump on his cell and the world leaders reading documents drew criticism.

“There’s almost a level of exasperation to how the senator is tweeting — especially in contrast to the previous administration, which was so careful about these things,” said Wells. “He expressed that he wanted to respond, and we drafted a tweet and posted it on his behalf.”

Casey’s Twitter use — and Trump’s

It’s not just that Casey’s Twitter voice has been aggressive; the emojis, the gifs, the style are all attributes that social media users associate with millennials.

“As he went through his last campaign cycle, and saw how his audience was communicating online, he saw that this was a younger audience,” Wells said. Of course, with the president being active on Twitter, the senator felt the need to chime in more. “He wanted to see his views reflected in that conversation,” said Wells.

“He wants to be very clear and very accurate,” he said of Casey’s Twitter goals. “I think that contrasts from the president on social media.”

Brian Ott, chair of Texas Tech’s communications department, believes that Trump remains unique among politicians for his Twitter use. Ott, who recently authored the  paper, “The age of Twitter: Donald J. Trump and the politics of debasement,” described Trump’s Twitter style as “high risk communication”: “He tweets a lot of things that would be career-ending for other politicians.”

“Trump has rewritten every textbook we know on how we should communicate to constituents,” Ott explained. Trump voters are “far less compelled by the content of the message, but the tone. The almost reckless abandon is appealing to them,” he said of the president’s tweets.

Everyone but Trump, Ott said, is still engaging in a way that’s more safe, and that’s more curated. Still, the president has made politicians ponder how to replicate what makes Trump’s tweets far-reaching, without taking things dangerously too far.

Politicians, Ott said, are “trying to seem less elitist.” Ott noted that most electeds would still pick communications personnel over tweeting directly a la Trump, though. “The message is still heavily designed, but the form gives the impression that we’re getting a more unfiltered politician.”

Casey’s task is to sort through the calculus of securing votes in the state’s bluer sections, without alienating moderates too greatly. Coming hard at Trumpism on Twitter signals that he’s willing to push back against the president’s policies with the caucus.

But this is also a moment when Washington watches Trump’s every tweet; when younger Americans extol the virtues of social media clapbacks. Casey might not use the terms petty and savage as the youngs do, but he’s learning those modes have value.

“They’re trying to figure out how to mobilize these people without inspiring backlash,” Ott said. “There’s no particular ideology that has a monopoly on populism… Populism is as much about form as it is about content. What Trump has taught us in this contemporary moment is that form matters.”

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