Has Democrat John Fetterman found a way to beat the reality-TV politician?

The Pennsylvania Senate hopeful is wielding social media might against star power. His secret weapon? Snooki

Whether it’s Ronald, Donald or Arnold, Americans are all too familiar with the phenomenon of the second-tier celebrity turned politician. So when the TV doctor Mehmet Oz decided to run for Senate in Pennsylvania, his background as a B-lister seemed well suited to the role.

As he proudly notes in his official biography, Oz has won Emmys, has written eight bestsellers, and was featured on six seasons of The Oprah Winfrey Show. He is a master of traditional media. But now the daytime TV star is facing a Democratic opponent who has proved himself a media success story in his own right – though his area of expertise is Twitter, not television.

When John Fetterman entered the race, the relatively little known lieutenant governor had his work cut out for him: a Bernie Sanders backer who supports universal healthcare and a $15 minimum wage, he is running to replace a Republican in a swing state.

But he has rapidly made himself a national name as he tears into Oz on social media – hammering him, in particular, on the question of whether he’s really from Pennsylvania at all. Oz has said he moved there in 2020 – to a place his wife’s parents own. Before that, he lived in New Jersey for decades.

In Fetterman’s view, Oz is still a Jersey boy, and the Democrat has weaponized meme after meme against his rival. Fetterman has posted a picture of Oz’s face on a Pennsylvania driver’s license, labeled “McLovin” in an homage to cinema’s best known fake ID. He has mocked his rival for apparently filming an ad for his Pennsylvania campaign in his New Jersey mansion. And he has employed the services of the most Jersey person this side of Bruce Springsteen: Nicole “Snooki” Polizzi.

Hey @DrOz 👋

JERSEY loves you + will not forget you!!! 🥰 pic.twitter.com/YmaXfMpzUK

— John Fetterman (@JohnFetterman) July 14, 2022

In a clip that has received more than 84,000 likes on Twitter, the Jersey Shore reality star offers some savage sympathy: “I heard that you moved from New Jersey to look for a new job,” she says. “I know you’re away from home and you’re in a new place, but … don’t worry, because you’ll be back in New Jersey soon.”

Fetterman’s attacks aren’t limited to the digital world. He had a pilot fly a banner over the Jersey shore saying, “Hey Dr Oz. Welcome home to NJ! ❤️ John.” He posted the image online, flexing Pennsylvania credentials by dedicating it to “yinz and youse down the shore today” – a combination of Pittsburgh and Philly-speak. He’s also selling a “Dr Oz for NJ” sticker. And in a coup de grâce on Thursday, Fetterman confirmed that he had launched a petition to have Oz honored in the New Jersey Hall of Fame, which celebrates the accomplishments of state residents.

Oz in front of american flag
Mehmet Oz at a rally in June. Photograph: Ariana Shchuka/AP

Oz himself has a ways to go when it comes to the art of the political stunt. He posted pictures of himself visiting Pat’s and Geno’s, the dueling cheesesteak shops, across the street from each other, that are a Philadelphia landmark. It was a rookie error, akin to a New Yorker taking a selfie at Times Square – any local can list at least five cheesesteak places they’ve deemed better than those two. Fetterman called Oz a “tourist”, and even Pat’s itself replied: “Do you even live in [Pennsylvania]? And can you spell the town you live in?” (Oz misspelled the name of his supposed home town, Huntingdon Valley, in a campaign filing.) When you’re getting burned by a cheesesteak shop, you know you need to up your social media game.

While Fetterman has proved himself a natural in the art of trolling, you can almost feel the blood, sweat and tears poured into Oz’s efforts. When he posted a doctored image of Bernie Sanders with Fetterman labeled “best friends”, Fetterman replied with a meme mocking Oz’s graphic design skills. When the Republican shared a picture of a dictionary definition of “John Fetterman” – a “Bernie Sanders socialist” who is “wrong for Pennsylvania” – it felt like exactly what it was: an attempt to crowbar old-fashioned political boilerplate into a modern format. (It also placed “John Fetterman” between “justice” and “jurisdiction”, which, as several people pointed out, is not how the alphabet works.)

To all yinz + youse down the shore today: hope you saw my very nice message ✈️ to one of NJ’s famous longtime residents 🥰 pic.twitter.com/xiVd6q5JIm

— John Fetterman (@JohnFetterman) July 10, 2022

Perhaps in desperation, Oz has recently adopted a new tactic: a “John Fetterman basement tracker” that records how long it’s been since the Democrat has held a public event. But instead of coming off as a blow to his opponent, the strategy just seems mean-spirited. What took Fetterman off the campaign trail was a stroke on 13 May.

Despite his pause from IRL campaigning, Fetterman’s strategy appears to be working. Polls have repeatedly put the Democrat on top in the race, and he has raised about nine times as much as his opponent since April. A win in November may serve as a political lesson about the importance of carving out a digital identity and could be crucial to Democrats’ chances of holding the Senate. Like so many others these days, Fetterman is working from home – and finding that he can still get things done.


Matthew Cantor

The GuardianTramp

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