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How John Fetterman is using Snooki, Twitter and his online campaign to overshadow Dr. Oz

Erie Times News
Erie Times News
 2022-07-21
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A two-month absence from the campaign trail hasn’t slowed down Democrat John Fetterman’s momentum in his Senate race against Republican Mehmet Oz in Pennsylvania.

As the state’s lieutenant governor makes a gradual return to the campaign trail following a May 13 stroke that nearly killed him, Fetterman’s social media and unconventional strategies have kept pressure on his opponent in a race with national attention because it could determine whether Democrats keep their thin majority in the U.S. Senate.

Fetterman has made Oz's recent move to Pennsylvania a focus since before winning his party's ballot spot in May, using pointed Twitter posts calling the cardiothoracic surgeon and former TV host a political tourist and a carpetbagger. He's continued those narrative attacks in recent days using social media and even an airplane while staying physically off the campaign trail.

Meanwhile, Oz’s campaign pushes Fetterman as a political radical who will only raise gas prices and inflation — two issues hitting hard the wallets of Pennsylvanians. And he's responded to Fetterman's online trolling with attempts to turn his opponent into a meme and has started a "John Fetterman Basement Tracker," emphasizing the Democrat's absence.

The goal of any campaign is define your opponent before they define you, and to do it as early and often as possible while not losing steam, according to Democratic national strategist Julie Roginsky. Weeks of bed rest could have severely damaged Fetterman's campaign, but Roginsky said the 52-year-old candidate's knack for “out-of-the-box” messaging could become a template for other politicians if he's successful in November.

“It allowed him to break out of a very strong primary pack where he was running against very well-established fellow democrats," she said.

"And, more importantly for him now, it fills a void while he’s not on the campaign trail as a result of a stroke. He’s still in the conversation without ever having to publicly set foot in an event while he’s recovering."

A recent video posted on Fetterman’s Twitter account featuring reality TV star Nicole “Snooki” Polizzi, of MTV’s Jersey Shore reality show, wishing Oz well on his job hunt in Pennsylvania quickly racked up headlines and hundreds of thousands of views.

“Jersey will not forget you. I just want to let you know I will not forget you. And don't worry because you'll be back home in Jersey soon. This is only temporary, so good luck. You got this and Jersey loves you," Polizzi added.

The video appears to have been made through Polizzi’s Cameo profile, a service that provides personalized messages from celebrities for a fee. Polizzi’s Cameo account lists her personal video message rate at $300 and a rate for businesses at $3,500. That July 14 video had over 3.5 million views as of Tuesday afternoon, a successful viral ad calling attention to Oz’s previous address across the Delaware River in Cliffside Park, New Jersey.

A week earlier, Fetterman posted a snarky tweet criticizing Oz for apparently filming a campaign video in his New Jersey home, drawing attention to a bookshelf behind Oz that resembled one from a photograph in a People magazine feature about his mansion years earlier.

A few days later, a plane flying over parts of the southern New Jersey shoreline — a popular summer getaway for Pennsylvanians — towed a banner reading, “Hey Dr. OZ Welcome Home to New Jersey – John.”

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Fetterman’s stroke days before the May 17 primary was brought on by atrial fibrillation, commonly referred to as A-fib. A surgery implanting a pacemaker and defibrillator soon after would raise questions about his health and lead to the campaign releasing a letter addressing a previously undisclosed cardiomyopathy diagnosis dating back to 2017.

The health scare didn’t seem to hurt the former Braddock mayor’s returns at the ballot box earlier this year as he took 60% of the vote, but it did mean weeks of rest in a race for a federal office in one of several key battleground states this November.

Fetterman hasn’t made any major public campaign stops since May, save for a surprise July 9 visit to a Pennsylvania Democratic Party training in Pittsburgh. Fetterman’s campaign posted a video of that visit to his Twitter account as well.

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“I am feeling so great, and we will be back out on the trail soon. We’re almost at 100%,” Fetterman told applauding volunteers.

Fetterman’s campaign website includes a number of virtual events, but no traditional campaign stops like the ones he was making across the commonwealth before his stroke.

Roginsky said stopping campaign visits and being away from the public eye could put any nominee’s race in serious danger.

“Campaigns today never slow down. You start running for office at least two years before an actual election begins. Even if you don’t announce, you lay the groundwork and begin campaigning and you never slow down,” said Roginsky.

Fetterman’s campaign also recently reported receiving about $11 million in donations for the second quarter of the year, and the Federal Elections Commission website estimates Fetterman has raised over $17.8 million in contributions under $200 throughout his campaign so far.

Oz’s latest funding figures show donors have floundered by comparison, raising roughly $4 million since the last FEC data dump through April 27. About $2.2 million of that came out of Oz’s own pocket in the form of loans to his campaign.

The FEC campaign finance website currently estimates Oz has raised about $848,782 in small donations.

Roginsky said those numbers tell a lot about how Fetterman’s online campaign is resonating with voters and about his electability in November. She said low-dollar fundraising is "the lifeblood of any successful campaign."

“Every time somebody gives your campaign $1, you have their vote. And small donors have a level of enthusiasm that translates to votes,” Roginsky said.

Oz punches back online

Oz hasn’t been resting on his laurels during Fetterman’s recovery, but he seems to be having trouble making the same impact as his opponent in the race.

This news organization reached out to Oz's campaign for comment in this story, but those requests were not returned.

Oz has been making multiple stops across the commonwealth over the past month. He held a roundtable discussion with Erie County Farmers on June 14, telling dozens of farmers that he'll work to roll back "rules that don't make sense" and push for energy policies that can help not only the state's oil and gas companies but also the agricultural industry.

Oz has been making campaign spots in Bradford, Allegheny and Butler counties earlier this month while making appearances on pod casts appearances on podcasts and other news programs, according to several news releases on his website, interspersed with statements bashing Fetterman as “far-left” and a “socialist.”

Oz holds roundtable with PA Farmers:Dr. Oz holds roundtable discussion with PA farmers at North East winery and fruit farm

Recent online posts over the past week from Oz seem to show the Montgomery County resident is taking notes from Fetterman’s playbook.

On Tuesday evening, Oz used a popular internet image meme to compare Fetterman to Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, a two-time Democratic presidential nominee, saying they both support ending the filibuster in the Senate. The image is a still taken from the 1967 Spider-Man cartoon episode that features two Spider-Man characters pointing at each other. The meme is basically an updated form of the “pot calling the kettle black” expression.

Fetterman has said many times during his campaign that he supported abolishing the rule allowing unlimited debate on the Senate floor as means of delaying votes to push through reforms on abortion access.

Earlier the same day, Oz’s campaign website announced the “John Fetterman Basement Tracker,” a static image of a figure in the same kind of black hooded sweatshirt Fetterman is often seen wearing with a tally of days since his last public campaign event.

“It has been 68 days since Fetterman’s last public campaign event or press interview — more than half the number of days left until Election Day,” the website states.

5 ways Dr. Oz could win PA Senate race:Here are 5 ways Dr. Oz could win the Senate race in Pennsylvania

Brittany Yanick, the Oz campaign’s communications director, calls out Fetterman for “hiding in the basement,” referencing political jabs from former President Donald Trump in the 2020 Presidential race against then-candidate Joe Biden over his lack of public appearances during the pandemic.

The same day Fetterman released the Snooki video, Oz posted a video on his YouTube video welcoming Fetterman back to the campaign trail by going for a jog with a group of his own supporters.

“I’m glad he’s okay. Now that he’s back, John Fetterman can’t keep hiding from voters forever. I mean, Joe Biden hid in his basement. How did that work out for us?” Oz says in his campaign video.

Oz’s jogging video currently has less than 9,000 views, the Spider-Man post was met with mostly responses that Oz was out of touch and a Google search for the basement tracker announcement didn’t seem to draw any media attention.

The Republican’s race to replace retiring GOP Sen. Pat Toomey has been a rocky road overall.

Despite getting Trump’s endorsement in early April, Oz was unable to take a decisive lead over a crowded Republican primary ballot.

His nearest challenger, Dave McCormick, ended up losing to Oz in a margin so razor-thin it triggered an automatic recount by the Pennsylvania Department of State.

The recount delayed any clear winner from emerging for weeks after the primary, which may also be why Oz’s campaign funding lagged in May and June.

Not only is Oz currently several millions of dollars behind Fetterman, the $19 million he has managed to raise is still about $500,000 less than McCormick’s overall fundraising.

While polling before the primary indicated Republican voters weren’t very concerned about where Oz has lived in the past, many voters reported concerns over his past statements against banning abortions and that he was a “Hollywood Liberal” posing as a conservative.

Despite a 541,024-voter lead over Republicans, Pennsylvania is very much a swing state and can be a challenging place for Democratic candidates in any national office.

Fetterman also isn’t just running against Oz, but also President Biden’s job approval rating. As other political commentators have noted previously, a midterm election often means the party in power loses congressional seats when that president’s approval rating is low.

As of this week, Biden’s approval rating on Real Clear Politics was about 37.7%.

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