In Pennsylvania, a scrappy interloper — New Jersey — dominates U.S. Senate race

Democrat John Fetterman is going all out to attack Republican Mehmet Oz with a slur: New Jerseyan.

By: - August 11, 2022 12:21 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

By Dana DiFilippo

Any Pennsylvanian with even a passing interest in politics knows who John Fetterman is.

The Keystone State’s lieutenant governor has made a name for himself as a working-class antihero in Harrisburg, a persona he has crafted largely in self-deprecating social media posts in which he embraces his notorious aversion to pants, his wife’s gentle ribbing, and his hulking resemblance to a professional wrestler.

Now Fetterman wants to represent Pennsylvania in the U.S. Senate, and the Democrat is facing Republican Mehmet Oz in this closely watched race that could determine which party controls the body for the next two years.

In a bitter campaign that has been whittled down from 25 candidates, a third character has emerged — New Jersey.

Oz is a longtime resident of Cliffside Park, N.J., who registered to vote in Pennsylvania in December 2020 and bought a home there weeks after he launched a run for the Senate seat that opened when Republican Sen. Pat Toomey announced his retirement. But the celebrity doctor has found it tough to shake claims that he still lives in Jersey — no doubt due to his opponent’s incessant trolling.

Fetterman has relentlessly ridiculed Oz’s Garden State roots, accusing him of being “more Jersey than Taylor ham,” calling him a tourist, and enlisting famous New Jerseyans like rocker Stevie Van Zandt and “hot mess” Nicole “Snooki” Polizzi to pile on.

Fetterman’s camp also flew a plane over the Jersey Shore with a banner welcoming Oz home, sold “Dr. Oz for NJ” bumper stickers, and alerted drivers on a billboard at a bridge to Philly that they were “now leaving New Jersey for Pennsylvania … just like Dr. Oz.”

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Election observers say it’s a creative, effective strategy that probably wouldn’t work with any other state as the boogeyman.

“If he was from Iowa, how many different ways can you say he lived on a corn farm?” said Laura Matos, a New Jersey Democratic strategist and president of Latina Civic PAC. “New Jersey is the butt of jokes very often, globally.”

Micah Rasmussen, director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University, agreed New Jersey is an easy punchline.

“This validates everything people think about New Jersey — we’re pushy, we’re used to getting our way, we’re gonna run roughshod over everybody,” Rasmussen said. “This is like neighbors with a fence — New Jersey and Pennsylvania have traded barbs with each other probably since Ben Franklin sent his son to be our last colonial governor.”

The focus on New Jersey also diverts voters’ attention from the issues, which serves both candidates well during an especially divisive time in American politics, watchers say.

“I don’t think there’s much to gain on either side to talk specifically about divisive issues like abortion or gun control, because it’s going to be really hard for them to talk about these issues in a way that skews towards the middle and doesn’t alienate folks on the other side,” said Michael Sances, associate professor of political science at Temple University. “So making it a battle of personalities and trustworthiness is smart — although they can only do that for so long.”

The Fetterman and Oz campaigns did not respond to requests for comment. An Oz campaign staffer told the Philadelphia Inquirer in December that Oz still frequents New Jersey because he works in New York City and has family in that area, who he likes to spend his time with when he’s off the campaign trail.

Mehmet Oz speaks at a 3/15/22 press conference in Harrisburg (Capital-Star photo by Stephen Caruso).

A competitive race

Despite Fetterman’s best efforts, Oz has a number of things on his side.

He has name recognition, which can dramatically boost a candidate’s vote share. Millions of Americans know him as a radio and TV personality who’s an Oprah favorite. Even on social media, the recognition gap is wide: Oz has 3.8 million Twitter followers, five times Fetterman’s 691,100.

“He’s someone that people have watched for a long time and might have built up an affinity for, so that’s certainly an asset,” said Christopher Borick, director of the Institute of Public Opinion and a political science professor at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pennsylvania.

He’s also a Republican in a swing state running at a time when pundits are predicting a red wave in November’s midterm elections.

“Historically, we see that the president’s party suffers in these midterm elections,” Borick said. “So Oz has the wind at his back, and that will elevate his chances and keep this race very competitive all the way through, despite very significant liabilities in terms of his connection to the state and the juxtaposition of Fetterman’s biography.”

Outside of southeast Pennsylvania, the perception of Jersey among a lot of Pennsylvanians has never been all that positive, and neither is Hollywood. Oz is Hollywood in Jersey. So that's a pretty heavy load to carry.

– Christopher Borick, Muhlenberg College political analyst

Pennsylvania’s Senate seat is key: Democrats’ edge in the 50-50 Senate comes only with Vice President Kamala Harris’ tie-breaking vote, so flipping Toomey’s seat is critical for Democrats to keep control of the chamber.

Elections in swing states often are decided on the margins, Sances said. Older people tend to vote more, but social media skews younger and more to the left. So Fetterman’s social media trolling might be more about mobilizing unengaged voters to the polls, rather than changing people’s minds, Sances said.

“John Fetterman knows he needs significant turnout among Democrats, especially younger Democrats who don’t normally get excited about midterm elections, and this is his way to try to do that,” he said.

Election watchers agree questions about Oz’s residency will be tough to overcome and likely dampened voter enthusiasm for him in the primary, where he won only about a third of votes cast — a paper-thin margin over second-place candidate Dave McCormick. Fetterman, in comparison, won about 60 percent of the Democratic primary vote.

The anti-Mehmet Oz banner that flew over the Jersey Shore in July. (Courtesy of Fetterman campaign)
The anti-Mehmet Oz banner that flew over the Jersey Shore in July. (Courtesy of Fetterman campaign)

Recent polls have Fetterman leading Oz by double digits, as of Aug. 4, with 49 percent of those polled saying they support Fetterman and 38 percent preferring Oz, according to the polling aggregation site FiveThirtyEight.

Claims of “carpetbagging” are nothing new in politics, but they’ve lost some of their power as the world becomes more mobile, Borick said.

Still, Pennsylvania is a state where people tend to stay for generations, and many residents identify more with Midwestern values than East Coast, he said.

“This is not New York or California, where you might have candidates like Bobby Kennedy and Hillary Clinton kind of drop in and succeed,” said Borick, who — like Fetterman — is a native Pennsylvanian.

In Pennsylvania, it’s a much harder hill to climb being someone from the outside — especially from Jersey, Borick said.

“Outside of southeast Pennsylvania, the perception of Jersey among a lot of Pennsylvanians has never been all that positive, and neither is Hollywood,” Borick said. “Oz is Hollywood in Jersey. So that’s a pretty heavy load to carry.”

Dana DiFilippo is a reporter for the New Jersey Monitor, a sibling site of the Pennsylvania Capital-Star, where this story first appeared.

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