From crudité to swipes over an allowance, trolling has become a U.S. Senate campaign staple

The Democratic and Republican nominees in Pennsylvania’s race have had no problems going head-to-head online, using their respective platforms to promote policy, troll each other, and fundraise

By: - August 23, 2022 4:41 pm
Democratic U.S. Senate nominee John Fetterman (L) and Republican U.S. Senate nominee Mehmet Oz (R) Campaign file photos

Democratic U.S. Senate nominee John Fetterman (L) and Republican U.S. Senate nominee Mehmet Oz (R) Campaign file photos

From trolling over crudité to making swipes over an allowance, the ongoing social media feud between Lt. Gov. John Fetterman and celebrity heart surgeon Mehmet Oz has become a U.S. Senate campaign staple.

The Democratic and Republican nominees in Pennsylvania’s race have had no problems going head-to-head online, using their respective platforms to promote policy, troll each other, and fundraise.

But their approaches have led to different results in the race to replace retiring GOP U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey.

“Its presence has steadily risen over the past 15 years, in particular, as a cornerstone element of campaigns,” Christopher Borick, a political science professor at Muhlenberg College, said of social media. “And as the electorate changes with younger voters continually coming into the mix — as a group who uses social media extensively — the expectations on campaigns to ramp up in that realm has risen. And we can see that playing out right now.”

With endless pop culture memes, Fetterman, 53, has proven fluent in trolling Oz, who has tried to keep up with online digs but fumbled at relating to everyday Pennsylvanians, fueling attacks that he’s out of touch with voters.

Oz, 62, faced backlash last week after an April campaign video resurfaced online, showing him walking around a Redner’s grocery store — which Oz incorrectly called “Wegner’s” — to pick up broccoli, asparagus, carrots, salsa, and guacamole to make his wife crudité. But after looking at the price, Oz blames steep costs on President Joe Biden.

“Twenty dollars for crudité, and this doesn’t include the tequila,” Oz said in the video. “I mean, that’s outrageous. And we got Joe Biden to thank for this.”

The video went viral after a 22-year-old Twitter user shared the post, asking: “Who thought this was a good idea?”

“In PA, we call this a veggie tray,” Fetterman tweeted, sharing the original video. His campaign later said the crudité video helped them raise more than $500,000 in 24 hours.

Responding to the backlash after the video resurfaced, Oz said he was exhausted from campaigning to explain misnaming the grocery store. 

Building on past carpetbagger accusations, Fetterman later attacked Oz’s 10-property portfolio, reported by the Daily Beast, saying he has “never spoken to a PA resident who doesn’t know how many houses they have — let alone be off by 10.” In response, Oz defended himself by saying that he bought his houses with his own money, making a dig at Fetterman for accepting financial help from his parents until he was elected Pennsylvania’s lieutenant governor.

“You lived off your parents until you were almost 50,” Oz tweeted. “Regular people don’t mooch off their parents when they’re 50. Get off the couch, John!”

Samuel Chen, an Allentown-based political strategist who has worked for Toomey, told the Capital-Star that Fetterman is the clear winner of the social media battle. He added that Fetterman has “trapped Oz into trying to play his game.”

“Oz is trying to respond with memes and these quick one-liners, but that’s really John Fetterman’s game,” he said. “Oz needs to get back to what he’s good at and stop playing to someone else’s strengths.”

Voters want to be able to look at a candidate and say: “Yes, this person is going to be able to represent me,” Chen said. But that “has a million different shades,” he added. Oz has the right idea — going to grocery stores, making appearances at the Farm Show, county fairs, and restaurants, Chen said.

“The problem is that the lifestyle he’s trying to portray is not the lifestyle he lives,” Chen said. “This is where you run into issues of not knowing what Wegman’s is, mispronouncing the store name, or talking about crudité as if every Pennsylvanian is somebody that does this regularly.”

The crudité video is reminiscent of when U.S. Sen. Mitt Romney, then a presidential candidate in 2012, said “cheesy grits” instead of “cheese grits” on the campaign trail, Chen said. He added that he thinks former President Donald Trump was successful in 2016 because “he didn’t try to become someone he wasn’t.”

Mustafa Rashed, a Philadelphia-based political consultant, told the Capital-Star that Fetterman uses social media to his advantage, especially during his recovery. But he thinks Fetterman’s online presence has done more to energize an existing base.

Oz’s challenge is learning the difference between being a celebrity and a politician, Rashed said.

“Oz is trying to get people to like him at the expense of someone else. I’m not sure his social media is made for that,” Rashed said. “This is new for him, and I’m not sure if he’s quite ready for this moment.”

He noted attacks against Oz during the primary, many from his GOP opponents.

“He had to start from a position of trying to rebuild what his image should be instead of what his primary opponents outlined,” Rashed said. “He has spent a lot of resources trying to do that, and that’s challenging.”

Borick said Oz should focus on his communications strengths, saying: “He’s a TV figure, and TV is still incredibly important.”

The day Fetterman returned to the campaign trail after suffering a stroke and undergoing a procedure to implant a pacemaker with a defibrillator, Oz challenged him to a televised debate, saying he’s accepted five invitations. The first debate — hosted by Pittsburgh-based KDKA-TV — is scheduled for Sept. 6, and Fetterman has yet to announce whether he’s participating.

“If John is too sick to debate and is too concerned he can not stand in front of cameras for more than 10 minutes, then he should just say so,” Brittany Yanick, communications director for the Oz campaign, said Monday. “We’re sure voters would understand and so would we.”

Rebecca Katz, a senior advisor for the Fetterman campaign, said the Democratic nominee is up for a debate — just not on Oz’s terms.

“One candidate had a stroke three months ago, and the other is a professional television personality, so our eyes are wide open about whose strengths this plays to,” Katz said in a written statement. 

The campaign has dismissed Oz’s push for a debate as “an obvious and pathetic attempt to change the subject during yet another bad week.”

“If it’s one thing Dr. Oz is good at, it’s lying to people on television. It’s what he’s been doing professionally for the past 20 years,” Katz said, referring to bogus treatments pushed by Oz. “So it’s no surprise he’s eager for as many debates as possible. If it were up to Oz, this entire campaign would take place in a TV studio where he can comfortably lie. He’s certainly not winning Pennsylvanians over in person.”

Rashed is hopeful the two candidates will engage in a debate, saying a public forum is the best opportunity for the public to see how they carry themselves and answer questions.

This isn’t the first time Fetterman has faced scrutiny over debate participation. When he skipped a Democratic debate ahead of the primary election, his opponents accused him of avoiding questions about his record.

While there might be added pressure for Fetterman to appear in a public debate, Borick stressed the importance of timing.

He added that it’s risky for Oz to attack Fetterman for not immediately agreeing to a debate, saying he could come off as “cold-hearted” and trying to take advantage of a medical situation.

“I think the Fetterman campaign has largely played to the traditional campaign strategy of a front-runner limiting opportunities for their challengers to score points,” Borick said. “That’s textbook strategy — try to minimize the attempts and push them as far down the road.”

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