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For Tweeting Candidates, a Campaign Risk

Greg Abbott's online appreciation for a tweet that called state Sen. Wendy Davis an "idiot" and a "Retard Barbie" highlights the high-risk, high-reward proposition of letting candidates handle their own social media.

Greg Abbott announces his candidacy for governor at La Villita in San Antonio on July 14, 2013.

As his followers know, Attorney General Greg Abbott, widely considered the front-runner to be Texas' next governor, manages his own Twitter feed. It's not uncommon for him to use it to thank his supporters. 

But his appreciation for a supporter's tweet on Sunday night — one that called state Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, an "idiot" and a "Retard Barbie" — has fast become the most controversial moment of Abbott's young gubernatorial bid. And it has highlighted the high-risk, high-reward proposition of letting candidates handle their own social media.     

The original tweet — "@GregAbbott_TX would absolutely demolish idiot @WendyDavisTexas in Gov race - run Wendy run! Retard Barbie to learn life lesson.  @tcot" — was written by Jeff Rutledge, a self-described "Texas publisher, debater and attorney." Abbott's response? "Jeff, thanks for your support." 

An Abbott source who spoke on condition of anonymity said the attorney general did not read the full message (and, in particular, the offensive language) before expressing his gratitude. Later, Abbott issued something of a clarification: "FYI: I thank supporters on Twitter, but I don't endorse anyone's offensive language. Stay positive."

For Democrats, that didn't go far enough. The Democratic Governors Association denounced his tweet. And Texas Democratic Party Chairman Gilberto Hinojosa issued the following statement: “Greg Abbott stated appreciation for a tweet that insults women and the mentally disabled, and now doesn’t even have the decency to apologize? Hate and discrimination have no place in our public discourse."

Abbott isn't the first Texas politician to find himself in hot water on Twitter.

In April, Texas Railroad Commission Chairman Barry Smitherman, who is now running to replace Abbott, drew criticism for retweeting an image listing the names of Republicans whose votes had broken the filibuster that would have kept a gun-control bill off the U.S. Senate floor — alongside a picture of a dangling noose.

Following his Twitter snafu, Smitherman — who does most of the tweeting on his account himself, according to his campaign — was more direct than Abbott in his apology. "In my haste to post, I failed to carefully review the complete image," he wrote on his website. "... The mistake was mine. I apologize."

Handing candidates the reins to their social media accounts — and allowing them to hastily blast messages to thousands of supporters and opponents alike — can be a headache for campaign staff. "It's dangerous," Republican political consultant Matt Mackowiak said. "As a staffer, the last thing you want is a principal who tweets on their own."

But cutting a candidate off risks a loss of authenticity. Harold Cook, a Democratic strategist, said, "It's seldom a good idea for other people to tweet for candidates, because it looks just as disingenuous as it is."

Though Cook acknowledged that allowing candidates to speak for themselves can cut both ways. "If a candidate doesn't have better sense than to stay on solid ground," he said, "then far better for voters to know that, but it's not necessarily to the candidate's benefit."

Mackowiak agreed that the desire to "get attention and be bold and be authentic" is often in competition with a desire to avoid controversy. Indeed, some Texas politicians and their staffers deliberately court controversy online.

Perhaps the best example is U.S. Rep. Steve Stockman, R-Friendswood. He's known for eye-catching tweets like this one: "If babies had guns, they wouldn't be aborted." It's done by design, and in many cases isn't even Stockman; it's the work of his communications director Donny Ferguson.

"Sometimes you can intentionally cross the line into controversial, and sometimes you can unintentionally cross the line into controversial," Mackowiak said. 

Mackowiak noted that Abbott's candid tweeting — which encompasses everything from politics to Diana Ross — had built up a large following for the attorney general. "This is a big part of not just his identity but also how he consumes news, sees what's going on and gets out of the campaign bubble," Mackowiak said. "I'm guessing he would be extremely reluctant to give that up."

Abbott campaign officials said they have no plans to ask him to. 

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