Satire, snark and social media are at the center of the Pennsylvania Senate race

ERIE, Pa. — When Dr. Mehmet Oz announced last fall that he would run for the U.S. Senate as a Republican, he had an inherent advantage that most new candidates don’t have: fame.

The famous TV doctor, after all, had been in many voters’ homes for years.

But ever since Oz narrowly won May’s GOP primary, his Democratic opponent has sought to make stardom his greatest political weakness.

John Fetterman, the burly 6-foot-9 Democratic Lieutenant Governor of Pennsylvania, known for his wardrobe of Carhartt sweatshirts and his arms covered in tattoos, barely fits the stereotype of a social media pundit. But his campaign has used the weapons of satire and snark on and off the internet to turn the residence and wealth of Oz into a focal point of the race, using tactics that could be cut from the writers’ room of “Veep”.

He rented a plane to fly a welcome banner over the beach in New Jersey, where Oz resided for decades before moving to Pennsylvania ahead of his Senate race. He posted videos of Garden State celebrities — including MTV’s ‘Jersey Shore’ Nicole “Snooki” Polizzi and Steven Van Zandt, a ‘Sopranos’ star and guitarist for Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band — telling Oz to come home at home. And he invited his followers to nominate Oz for induction into the New Jersey Hall of Fame.

The trolling has turned the campaign into a daily social media fight, where candidates trade jabs in real time. And it has helped make the race – one of the most competitive and important in the country – a must-see political story of the 2022 midterms.

Fetterman “has used social media in a more provocative, novel, and creative way than what we typically see from your Republican or Democratic flag-bearer candidate,” said Syracuse University School of Information Studies professor Jennifer Stromer-Galley. who does social research. media in politics.

Oz is the near-daily subject of Fetterman’s mockery, but he himself has used video and social media effectively as a contestant despite some notable failures, building on his strong on-camera skills, Stromer said- Gallery. And his supporters say Fetterman’s tactics are questionable either way, with issues — not memes — being the driving factor in the race.

“Zero-impact comedy series,” said John Fredericks, a right-wing radio host in Pennsylvania who encouraged former President Donald Trump to back Oz, giving him a boost in a hotly contested primary. “[Fetterman] can’t campaign on issues, so he has to rely on gimmicks and stunts.

No incident better illustrates how the race plays out online than a now infamous video in which Oz slaughtered the name of a grocery store before pulling broccoli, carrots and asparagus from a shelf along with guacamole and packaged salsa. Cradling the lot in his arms, he blamed President Joe Biden for the cost of the “rawness”.

Oz said he was in “Wegners” – an apparent mix between Wegmans and Redner’s, chains popular in Pennsylvania. he later told the right-wing TV channel Newsmax he “was exhausted” after a long day of campaigning when he filmed the take.

When Oz tweeted the rawness video in April, it looked like a goof that largely flew under the radar. But from a Twitter account executed by an anonymous 22 year old who goes through the handle @umichvoter put it back into circulation in August, asking “who thought this was a good idea”, he took his own life.

Fetterman responded on Twitter, writing that in Pennsylvania, “we call it a crisper.” By the end of the week, his campaign had raised more than $1 million in small donations from the Oz video, according to campaign spokesman Joe Calvello.

In Pittsburgh, Jon Romanishin, a 57-year-old paralegal who supports Fetterman, saw the video and couldn’t resist.

“It kinda struck me that they couldn’t get the store name right,” Romanishin said. So he created a parody account on Twitter for “Wegner’s Grocery.”

It started out as a simple profile, with just the letter W for a logo. His first tweet only received 32 retweets. “It was really bad,” Romanishin said.

But in one day, a graphic designer Free a logo design, and the account – with the Twitter bio “The Crudity Capital of Central PA” – began to gain traction, earning retweets from celebrities including Jimmy Kimmel. His second tweet from August 16 went viral. Today, the account has more than 27,000 followers — including Fetterman and his wife — and frequently trolls Oz and other GOP candidates.

Plumber TJ Sandell, who is president of the Great Lakes Building and Construction Trades Council in Erie, can barely hide his smile when asked about the trolling that has partly defined the Senate race.

“He shows everyone how Dr. Oz is out of touch with the real world,” he said of Fetterman.

Erie, a town in northwestern Pennsylvania where lakeside bars dot a shoreline that overlooks jet skis and flagged fishing boats, is home to a long union tradition that has for years been synonymous with the Democratic vote. . Erie County turned blue in every presidential election between 1988 and 2012.

Then came Trump, who turned the county red by a narrow margin in 2016 before Biden won it back for Democrats in 2020. Sandell, a Democrat, says “the temperature” is different among union voters. In this year’s Senate race, he said, he expects Fetterman to be able to rally some Trump voters.

And while many here are far removed from the social media attacks that have fixed a national audience, Fetterman’s message about Oz has caught on.

“I have an objection to Oz because it doesn’t really reside in our state,” said Michelle Whalen, 59, a retired schoolteacher. “From the little bits and pieces I gathered from the TV show, I thought he was living in New York or something, not Pennsylvania.”

Terry Scheu, 64, an independent Trump voter, said he preferred Fetterman in this race. “I think Oz has bought his way” into politics.

On TV, Fetterman’s message is delivered differently from the one he tells with memes and social media mockery, though one spot shows Oz kissing his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Fetterman’s ads target working-class voters, focusing on economic issues and portraying him as an anti-establishment figure. In one, which began airing in the Erie area in July, he mocks Washington’s decisions “made for us by people who don’t know us,” adding, “It’s exactly against who we run.

Oz accused Fetterman of being too progressive for Pennsylvania and “soft on crime”. In commercials and his frequent interviews on right-wing television, Oz calls Fetterman a “radical.” On social media, he sometimes responds to ridicule of Fetterman by ridiculing him for having taken large sums of money of his family as an adult.

Also central to Oz’s message are the attacks on Fetterman over his absence from the campaign trail. Fetterman suffered a stroke in May which sidelined him until recently. He returned to the campaign in person last month here in Erie, drawing more than 1,000 people for a rally, but he appears on the trail far less often than Oz.

Oz called Fetterman a “hologram” for campaigning virtually. And his campaign recently focused on Fetterman’s health after the Democrat said he would not participate in a debate in Pittsburgh. On Wednesday, Fetterman told Politico he would “absolutely” debate Oz.

Oz, whose campaign did not respond to questions for this story, accused Fetterman of dodging the media — and voters — because of his medical condition. Campaign aides poked fun at the Democrat’s health, at one point saying, in response to the rawness taunts, that if he had eaten more vegetables he might have avoided the stroke.

Fetterman, who said last week in his first national TV interview since the stroke that his only lingering issue was with auditory processing and speech, posted a video slamming Oz for a low blow. Fetterman was not made available for an interview for this story.

Fetterman supporter Patrick Hollingshead, a UPS driver who sits on his union’s board of directors in Harrisburg, the state capital, said the negative campaign — including some of the Democrat’s tactics — put him off. . “Why aren’t you running on your track record?” he said.

But it’s likely to only go up from here, as both candidates increase their spending on TV ads. Fetterman has been on the air for months, but Oz supporters are hoping a recent increase in Republican TV spending will help him shut down Fetterman’s. top of the polls.

David Urban, a Republican strategist who led Trump’s 2016 campaign in Pennsylvania, said the race is closer than polls suggest, in part because Oz is still bouncing back from a hard-fought primary. “Oz comes out a little bloodied and bruised, and Fetterman never had a glove on him,” he said.

For many voters, the negatives of both candidates are felt.

Christal Moore, 46, a computer scientist from Brookhaven, a suburb of Philadelphia, said when she came across the raw Oz video on Facebook, she wasn’t impressed. “I’m like, OK, what is rawness?” she says.

“I agree – food prices are high, but it would have been better to go down to the meat aisle and pull a packet of ground beef or chicken instead of complaining about the rawness,” she said . “He’s not even aware of the reality of what the daily worker goes through.”

Joe Fisher, a 55-year-old hospital director in Erie, is skeptical of Oz, largely because of the residency issue, but plans to vote for him regardless. The two-time Trump voter said he was swayed by the former president’s endorsement of Oz. “It’s pretty significant,” the Republican said. “Trump was the change.”

In Allegheny County, Republican Jane Hawkins, 66, a retired health care aide and Trump fan, says she just might not be in the Senate race.

“I don’t care about his view of letting the criminals go – too progressive for me,” she said of Fetterman. As for Oz: “It’s confusing what he really thinks,” she said, adding that he was “too famous.”

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