When Dr. Mehmet Oz announced last fall that he would run for the U.S. Senate as a Republican here, he had a built-in advantage most first-time candidates don’t: fame.
The celebrity television doctor, after all, had been in many voters’ homes for years.
But since Oz narrowly won the May GOP primary, his Democratic opponent has sought to turn his celebrity into his greatest political weakness.
John Fetterman, Pennsylvania’s burly, 6-foot-9 Democratic lieutenant governor, known for his wardrobe of baggy Carhartt sweatshirts and tattoo-covered arms, hardly meets the stereotype of a social media maven. But his campaign has wielded the weapons of satire and snark on the internet, and off, to turn Oz’s residency and wealth into a focal point of the race, using tactics that could be cut from the writers’ room of “Veep.”
He’s hired a plane to fly a welcome-home banner over the beach in New Jersey, where Oz resided for decades before moving to Pennsylvania ahead of his Senate run. He’s released videos of Garden State celebrities — including Nicole “Snooki” Polizzi of MTV’s “Jersey Shore” and Steven Van Zandt, a “Sopranos” star and guitarist in Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band — telling Oz to come home. And he’s invited supporters to nominate Oz for induction into the New Jersey hall of fame.
The trolling has turned the campaign into a daily sparring match on social media, where the candidates trade jabs in real time. And it’s helped make the race — one of the most competitive and consequential in the nation — into a can’t-miss political story of the 2022 midterms.
Fetterman “has been using social media in a more provocative, novel, creative way than we typically see from your standard-bearer Republican or Democratic candidate,” said Jennifer Stromer-Galley, a professor at the Syracuse University School of Information Studies who researches social media in politics.
Oz is the near-daily subject of Fetterman’s mockery, but he has effectively used video and social media himself as a candidate despite some notable fumbles, relying on his strong on-camera skills, Stromer-Galley said. And his supporters say Fetterman’s tactics are moot anyway, with issues — not memes — being the driving factor in the race.
“Zero-impact comedy show,” said John Fredericks, a right-wing radio host in Pennsylvania who encouraged former President Trump to back Oz, providing him a boost in a closely fought primary. “[Fetterman] can’t campaign on the issues, so he’s got to rely on gimmicks and stunts.”
No incident illustrates how the race is playing out online better than a now-infamous video in which Oz butchered the name of a grocery store before pulling broccoli, carrots and asparagus off a shelf along with packaged guacamole and salsa. Cradling the lot in his arms, he blamed President Biden for the cost of “crudité.”
Oz said he was in “Wegners” — an apparent mashup between Wegmans and Redner’s, popular chains in Pennsylvania. (He later told the right-wing TV outlet Newsmax he “was exhausted” after a long day on the campaign trail when he filmed the take.)
When Oz tweeted out the crudité video in April, it looked like a gaffe that largely flew under the radar. But since a Twitter account run by an anonymous 22-year-old who goes by the handle @umichvoter recirculated it in August, asking “who thought this was a good idea,” it has taken on a life of its own.
Fetterman responded on Twitter, writing that in Pennsylvania, “we call this a Veggie Tray.” By the end of the week, his campaign had raised more than $1 million in small-dollar donations off Oz’s video, according to campaign spokesperson Joe Calvello.
In Pittsburgh, Jon Romanishin, a 57-year-old paralegal who supports Fetterman, saw the video and couldn’t resist.
“It just kind of struck me they couldn’t get the name of the store right,” Romanishin said. So he created a parody account on Twitter for “Wegner’s Grocery.”
It started out as a bare-bones profile, with just the letter W for a logo. Its first tweet got just 32 retweets. “It was really bad,” Romanishin said.
But within a day, a graphic designer offered up a logo design, and the account — with the Twitter bio “The Crudité Capital of Central PA” — began to gain traction, earning retweets from celebrities, including Jimmy Kimmel. Its second tweet on Aug. 16 went viral. Today, the account has a following of more than 27,000 — including Fetterman and his wife — and frequently trolls Oz and other GOP candidates.
Plumber T.J. Sandell, who serves as president of the Great Lakes Building and Construction Trades Council in Erie, can barely hide his grin when asked about the trolling that has come to partially define the Senate race.
“He’s just showing everybody how Dr. Oz is not in touch with the real world,” he said of Fetterman.
Erie, a city in Pennsylvania’s northwest where lakefront bars dot a shoreline that looks out at bobbing jet skis and flag-flying fishing boats, is home to a long union tradition that was for years synonymous with voting Democratic. Erie County went blue in every presidential election between 1988 and 2012.
Then came Donald Trump, who turned the county red by a slim margin in 2016 before President 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 says, he expects Fetterman to be able to corral some Trump voters.
And while many here are far removed from the social media attacks that have fixated a national audience, Fetterman’s message about Oz has sunk in.
“I have an objection to Oz because he doesn’t really reside in our state,” said Michelle Whalen, 59, a retired school teacher. “From the little bits I gathered from the TV show, I thought he lived in New York or something, not Pennsylvania.”
Terry Scheu, 64, a self-employed Trump voter, said he prefers Fetterman in this race. “I think Oz bought his way” into politics.
On television, Fetterman’s message is delivered differently than the one he tells with memes and mockery on social media, though one spot does feature 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 derides Washington decisions “made for us by people who don’t know us,” adding: “That’s exactly who we’re running against.”
Oz has accused Fetterman of being too progressive for Pennsylvania and “soft on crime.” In ads and his frequent interviews on right-wing TV, Oz labels Fetterman a “radical.” On social media, he sometimes responds to Fetterman’s ridicule by deriding him for having taken large sums of money from his family as an adult.
Also central to Oz’s message: attacks on Fetterman about his absence from the campaign trail. Fetterman suffered a stroke in May that sidelined him until recently. He returned to in-person campaigning last month here in Erie, drawing more than 1,000 people for a rally, but he appears on the trail significantly less often than Oz.
Oz has called Fetterman a “hologram” for campaigning virtually. And his campaign has in recent days stepped up its focus on Fetterman’s health after the Democrat said he would not participate in a debate in Pittsburgh.
Oz, whose campaign did not respond to questions for this story, has accused Fetterman of ducking the media — and voters — due to his medical condition. Campaign aides have mocked the Democrat’s health, saying at one point, in response to the crudité jeering, that if he ate more vegetables, he could have avoided the stroke.
Fetterman, who said last week in his first national TV interview since the stroke that his only lingering issue is with auditory processing and speech, released a video criticizing 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 the executive board of his union in Harrisburg, the state capital, says the negative campaigning — including some of the Democrat’s tactics — turns him off. “Why aren’t you running on your track record?” he said.
But it is likely to only increase from here, as both candidates ramp up spending on TV ads. Fetterman has been on the air for months, but Oz supporters are hopeful a recent surge in Republican TV spending will help him close Fetterman’s lead in polling.
David Urban, a Republican strategist who ran Trump’s 2016 campaign in Pennsylvania, said the race is closer than polls would suggest, in part because Oz is still bouncing back after a hard-fought primary. “Oz emerges from that somewhat bloodied and bruised, and Fetterman has never had a glove laid on him,” he said.
For many voters, the negatives for both candidates are seeping through.
Christal Moore, 46, an IT worker from Brookhaven, a Philadelphia suburb, said that when she came across Oz’s crudité video on Facebook, she was unimpressed. “I’m like, OK, what is crudité?” she said.
“I agree — food prices are high, but he would have been better off going down the meat section and pulling up a pack of ground beef or chicken instead of complaining about crudité,” she said. “He’s not even with the reality of what the everyday working person goes through.”
Joe Fisher, a 55-year-old hospital manager in Erie, is skeptical of Oz, in large part because of the residency issue, but plans to vote for him regardless. The two-time Trump voter said he was influenced by the former president’s endorsement of Oz. “It’s pretty significant,” the Republican said. “Trump was change.”
In Allegheny County, Republican Jane Hawkins, 66, a retired caregiver and Trump fan, says she may just sit out the Senate race.
“I don’t care for his views of letting criminals go — too progressive for me,” she said of Fetterman. As for Oz: “It’s confusing to know what he really thinks,” she said, adding that he’s “too famous.”