The young men wear matching shirts from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.)’s campaign, and cluster around a cardboard cutout of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.). Several of them hold their thumbs down. One grasps the life-size poster by the waist and pretends to kiss the congresswoman. Another appears to mime his hand around her neck.

To Ocasio-Cortez, the photo — originally posted to Instagram and then made viral on Twitter on Monday — suggested an endorsement of violent misogyny.

“Are you paying for young men to practice groping & choking members of Congress w/ your payroll, or is this just the standard culture of #TeamMitch?” Ocasio-Cortez asked on Twitter on Monday night.

McConnell’s campaign answered in the negative to both questions, saying in a statement that it “in no way condones” the image and also noting that the men are high school students with no official affiliation.

But as many raced to post the men’s real names and social media accounts, the campaign also suggested it was wrong to cast them into the maw of viral outrage culture and cried hypocrisy, noting a similar controversy that ensnared President-elect Barack Obama’s speechwriter in late 2008.

“These young men are not campaign staff, they’re high schoolers and it’s incredible that the national media has sought to once again paint a target on their backs rather than report real, and significant news in our country,” said Kevin Golden, McConnell’s campaign manager, in a statement shared with The Washington Post.

The flap came as McConnell faces protests for blocking gun-control measures and questions about his campaign’s decision to tweet out a display featuring a tombstone with his Democratic opponent’s name on it.

The photo with Ocasio-Cortez’s cardboard cutout was apparently taken Saturday at a political event called the Fancy Farm Picnic, held in a small western Kentucky town of the same name. McConnell’s appearance was interrupted by protesters shouting “Moscow Mitch,” a slur given to the majority leader by critics in part over his move to block election security measures.

It’s not clear exactly who the men in the photo are, though some were later featured in another image shot at Fancy Farm and shared by the McConnell campaign’s Instagram account, holding large posters of Supreme Court Justices Neil M. Gorsuch and Brett M. Kavanaugh, as HuffPost reported.

President Trump and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi both face battles with four Democratic Congresswomen, known as the "Squad." Here's what you need to know. (Elyse Samuels, Allie Caren/The Washington Post)

On Monday afternoon, a widely followed feminist Twitter account tweeted out the cutout photo, derisively calling the men “future federal judges of America.” Ocasio-Cortez responded a few hours later by tagging McConnell and asking him to clarify if they worked for him and whether he condoned their behavior.

Golden, McConnell’s campaign manager, decried the image but also noted that former Obama speechwriter Jon Favreau was castigated in late 2008 for a photo of him groping a Hillary Clinton cardboard cutout at a party. Favreau apologized and Clinton’s office joked about the incident.

"Team Mitch in no way condones any aggressive, suggestive, or demeaning act toward life sized cardboard cut outs of any gender in a manner similar to what we saw from President Obama’s speechwriting staff several years ago,” Golden said.

But McConnell’s campaign manager also cast Ocasio-Cortez’s criticism as part of a larger plot to shame young GOP supporters.

“We’ve watched for years as the far-left and the media look for every possible way to demonize, stereotype, and publicly castigate every young person who dares to get involved with Republican politics,” he said.