In the final days before federal elections in the U.S., there are a few things you can count on. First, a few sleep deprived candidates, so exhausted they need to be reminded of their own names, will say something stupid. Second, caffeine addled operatives on the other side will leap on an unfortunate turn of phrase or ill-considered simile by their opponent and flog it on social media as though the unfortunate speaker had endorsed Josef Stalin for president.
This year’s midterms have been no different, particularly with control of the U.S. Senate in play. On Monday, campaign related social media was crowded with outrage about various “scandals” in a number of key Senate Races.
In Kansas, where veteran Republican Senator Pat Roberts is facing an unexpected challenge from Independent candidate Greg Orman, the focus was on the challenger’s observations about the national Republican Party’s effort to send in multiple big-name surrogates to stump for Roberts.
Asked about it, Orman told a reporter, “It sort of seems like a Washington establishment clown car to me,” said Orman. “You know, every day a new person comes out of that car.”
To most, the reference was fairly clear: The Republicans, he was saying, had crammed as many big names into the Kansas race as possible -- the way circus clowns pile into a car – in hopes of spurring voter turnout.
Then, somebody figured out that former Senator Bob Dole, the former Senate Majority Leader and Republican presidential candidate who was badly wounded in World War II, was one of the surrogates brought in to campaign for Roberts.
Suddenly, the story turned: Orman had called Bob Dole a clown.
He hadn’t of course, but the image of a candidate for Senate from Kansas insulting one of the state’s favorite sons had so much political power that it became an instant trending topic on social media, and Orman was forced to issue a public apology for an insult he had never actually uttered.
Over in Iowa, where there’s a pitched battle going on to replace retiring Hawkeye State Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin, the outgoing Senator found himself unexpectedly part of the debate in the final hours as he stumped for Rep. Bruce Braley, the Democrat trying to defeat Republican nominee Joni Ernst.
“Well, I hear so much about Joni Ernst,” Harkin said at a rally. “She is really attractive, and she sounds nice. Well I got to thinking about that. I don't care if she's as good looking as Taylor Swift or as nice as Mr. Rogers, but if she votes like Michele Bachmann, she's wrong for the state of Iowa.”
Despite the fact that her opponent isn’t Harkin, but Braley, it didn’t take long for Ernst to pounce on Harkin’s comments and make them part of the campaign.
“I was very offended that Senator Harkin would say that, I think it's unfortunate that he and many in their party believe that you can't be a real woman if you're conservative and female," she said. “I believe if my name had been John Ernst on my resume, then Senator Harkin would not have said those things.”
Ernst is, of course, quite right. Looks would never have come into the discussion if she were a man. That said, she isn’t running against the 74-year-old Harkin, but against Braley, who said nothing about her looks. However, someone exposed only to the Twitter storm that accompanied Harkin’s remarks, driven largely by conservative activists, would have thought they came straight from Braley’s lips.
Then there’s the race in North Carolina, where incumbent Democrat Kay Hagan is struggling to hold off state legislator Thom Tillis. There are legitimate questions about whether Hagan and her family benefited from a federal economic stimulus program. And there are also legitimate questions about whether one of the state’s main newspapers, the Raleigh News & Observer has adequately covered the story.
Things got a little silly Monday, though, when the N&O published and then pulled back a story originally reported by local television station WBTV. The story, reportedly based on documents obtained by the television station, alleged that state officials were urging an investigation of a grant issued to a company Hagan’s husband runs.
In fact, WBTV retracted the story for unspecified reasons, and the N&O, which had published it as a partner piece, removed it from their website because WBTV was no longer willing to stand by it.
On social media, though, the story suddenly became that the newspaper had “memory holed” the story, in order to benefit Hagan, whom the paper’s editorial board had endorsed.
A statement from an N&O editor explaining the decision has about as much impact as could be expected.
Fortunately for everyone, except those living in states likely to go to recall elections, like Georgia and Louisiana, the season of tortured rationales for outrage should end after tomorrow. At least for a week or two, until the 2016 presidential election gets under way.
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