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Don’t expect a liberal exodus from Elon Musk’s Twitter

The uproar in Democratic Washington about the possibility of Elon Musk creating an anything-goes Twitter is running up against a hard truth: Politicians just can’t quit Twitter.

Musk, a self-described “free-speech absolutist,” has said he wants to reduce restrictions on what users can say and that he doesn’t believe in banning accounts. That’s led liberal activists and lawmakers to fret that Twitter is about to become a toxic platform flooded with harassment and hate speech.

But no matter how much they may dislike it, Democrats with a policy, bill or agenda to push need the site as much as the Republicans who have been complaining for years about what they consider the platform’s censorship of conservatives.

That even involves, for some in Congress, making the call well before they know what Twitter will look like under Musk.

Asked how a Musk takeover of Twitter might affect his use of the platform, Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) said: “Won’t change my habits, and I have no idea what to make of it.”

Schatz, who has more than 56,000 followers on Twitter, keeps his tweets to relatively formal-sounding statements, providing a regular drumbeat to promote bills, back Democratic colleagues and emphasize his own role in larger party efforts. Progressive power users like Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) — with 15.5 million followers — and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) — with 12.9 million — haven’t spoken about whether Musk’s takeover will change their approach to Twitter. Neither has Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), with 5.8 million followers, who denounced Musk’s purchase as “dangerous for our democracy.”

A number of political strategists said Twitter is an important way to reach voters, and that they’ll be advising clients to keep their accounts up.

“If voters are trafficking Twitter, it would behoove candidates to be able to communicate with them directly where they’re at,” said Mark Jablonowski, a managing partner at DSPolitical, a digital ad firm that supports Democratic candidates.

Still, strategists said most politicians look to other social media sites like Instagram and Facebook — which have larger user base — to directly reach more voters. Twitter’s nearly 40 million daily active U.S. users are dwarfed by Facebook’s more than 200 million monthly active U.S. usersWhere Twitter does have pull is among journalists, Washington insiders and lawmakers themselves.

Andrew Bleeker, president of Bully Pulpit Interactive, a Democratic-aligned communications firm, said politicians need to use the platform to reach this small group of super users.

“Particularly journalism and Congress live in a very small Twitter bubble and speak to each other,” Bleeker said.

“Most Americans, when they think about Twitter, are not thinking about politics,” he said.

It’s likely one reason firebrand conservative Republicans have pushed so hard to change Twitter rather than just leaving for another right-leaning platform like Gettr, Gab or the former President Donald Trump-affiliated Truth Social. “Twitter has never been a very important platform for contacting voters. It has been a very important channel for shaping narratives and interacting with opinion makers, elites and journalists,” said Eric Wilson, a managing partner of the Startup Caucus, a Republican campaign technology incubator.

Some Democratic politicians frame staying on Twitter as refusing to back away from a fight.

JA Moore, a Democratic lawmaker in South Carolina’s state House who’s running for reelection, said he’ll stay on the platform even if Musk lifts Twitter’s current content guardrails.

“My brand of politics is a brand in which I don’t run away from a fight or an uncomfortable situation,” Moore said.

That’s certainly what Musk says he is hoping for. “I hope that even my worst critics remain on Twitter, because that is what free speech means,” he tweeted Monday.

Still, if Musk’s pledge to unleash free speech on Twitter goes too far, and it’s full of harassment, hate speech, and misinformation, Jablonowski predicts it could push certain candidates off.

“At the end of the day, candidates have a very carefully maintained public image most of the time, and not associating themselves with questionable content is often paramount,” he said. “If Twitter becomes a toxic wasteland, I can’t imagine that’s a place where candidates would want to engage.”

The closest some politicians are coming to publicly rejecting a less-moderated Twitter is saying that they’ll wait to see how bad it gets.

“As a Michigan politician, where misinformation and disinformation has been prolific and harmful, I am concerned about what that looks like,” said Christina Morse, a Democratic representative in Michigan’s state House. But, she added: “I’m not gonna go log off Twitter at this moment in time, because I’m gonna wait to see what happens.”

Politicians’ individual accounts have been particularly important because Twitter banned political ads in 2019 — saying that such ads gave unfair preference to deep-pocketed campaigns (though critics have argued that the ban itself gives the advantage to incumbents).

While Musk hasn’t addressed the issue of political ads, the ban is one of the decisions made by former CEO Jack Dorsey that Musk could reverse. Twitter didn’t have a lot to lose financially in banning political ads, which garnered just $3 million in revenue from the 2018 midterm elections.

Jablonowski said that if Musk does lift its political advertising ban, the site could become even more valuable to Democrats, regardless of what they think of its new owner.

“When you have those wholesale political bans, that generally adversely impacts Democrats more than Republicans,” he said. Jablonowski argued that Democrats have a more diverse base that makes targeted political ads more important, meaning bans end up “hindering the ability for Democrats to be as competitive in political elections.”

While the general conservative Republicans are welcoming the Musk takeover, a few said they’re also skittish about what a Muskified Twitter might mean for conservative candidates and campaigns, if it becomes full of harassment, hate speech and misinformation.

Wilson, of the Republican-focused Startup Caucus, said that if Musk were to lift almost all content moderation policies and Twitter turns into a “cesspool,” then “people will get out of the cesspool.”

And some in the Republican party are even worried that any reappearance of Trump — whom Twitter permanently banned after the Capitol insurrection in January 2021 — could be problematic for Republican candidates going into the midterms. Trump told Fox News on Monday that he doesn’t plan to rejoin Twitter, but former advisers have said he’d still consider returning.

“It certainly will elevate Trump’s opinions — and is going to put Republican candidates and members back having to answer for that,” a House GOP leadership aide told POLITICO’s Playbook. “It’s enough to create headaches — and it’s enough to probably cost us a couple seats.”

Anthony Adragna contributed to this report.

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