Greg Abbott & Wendy Davis Tangle with Twitter Townhalls

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resizeNo doubt things are tumultuous in Texas politics right now. The dramatic fight over abortion legislation has rallied many progressives, and the mounting struggle among Texas politicians to replace outgoing Gov. Rick Perry is heating up. The heated atmosphere finds key players, including HB 2 filibusterer Sen. Wendy Davis, taking to social media more intensely than ever.

Last Thursday, Davis hosted a Twitter town hall through the Lone Star Project, a progressive political action committee, fielding questions for around half an hour. The move came just eight days after Attorney General Greg Abbott, who is running for governor, did the same. Davis is keen to keep herself in the public eye, and countering Abbott’s Twitter appearance is one way she’s doing so.

Rapid-fire tweet barrages aside, the Twitter town hall format is selective by nature. No one expects a politician to answer every single tweet aimed at them, so the ones they choose to respond to can be illustrative. Davis’ selection of questions, and her answers, show an effort to prove that she’s about more than women’s health issues, and that her focus is on all of Texas. For instance:

Even before her town hall, Davis had been using Twitter to champion state-wide Democratic causes and assert her Texas identity.

It’s not all been a two-step for Davis, though. Plenty of pro-lifers weighed in on her town hall, flooding the #askwendy hashtag with questions, insults and graphic pictures of aborted fetuses. That prompted conservative bloggers and Twitter users to declare they had “hijacked” Davis’ town hall. Regardless, the Davis team deemed it a success.

Though Davis’ increased Twitter presence may just be a run-up to a tough 2014 contest for her Senate seat representing Fort Worth, they could also be taken as a step toward positioning herself for a higher office, especially given their timing in the immediate aftermath of Abbott’s own town hall.

The ink was barely dry on Perry’s press release announcing that he won’t seek another term when Abbott announced his campaign for the job. Abbott held his Twitter town hall on July 17.

Such town halls aren’t exactly a new move—Obama employed the strategy back in 2011, and the practice has gained in popularity since. Abbott’s virtual Q&A is an example of a recent eagerness among Texas politicians to reach out to potential voters via Twitter. It was also a dicey move, coming as it did not long after the contentious partisan fight over Texas’ abortion legislation, which played out as much on Twitter as it did in the halls of the Capitol. And depending on whose blog you read, Abbott’s move was either an embarrassment or a rousing success. Abbott managed to field 26 questions in about an hour. While his answers were mostly the canned, party-line responses you’d expect from the format, Abbott didn’t hesitate to take on some tough questions.

These answers didn’t play well with progressive Texan Twitter users, and the #askabbott hashtag was soon filled with their tweets, ranging from angry questions, obvious trolling and pure absurdity. Many invoked the still-fresh memory of the HB 2 protests.

All this led to Abbott turning curt at times.

When the dust settled, both Abbott and his tormentors declared victory. Whether Abbott’s foray onto the social-media battleground was a success or not, it’s clear he’s far from winning the war.

Meanwhile, Wendy Davis is making similar moves to keep the momentum from this summer’s showdown at the Capitol going in her direction, perhaps as a bid to position herself for something beyond the state senate. Both are realizing that social media outlets like Twitter can be a powerful tool for grabbing attention. They’re also learning the kind of attention you get can be unpredictable.