Assessing PA’s Unusual Senate Campaign

Assessing PA’s Unusual Senate Campaign
(AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
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The Pennsylvania U.S. Senate race has unconventional candidates on both sides. Republican nominee Dr. Mehmet Oz is a Turkish-born television doctor with a history of supporting liberal causes and sketchy health programs. The Democratic nominee, Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, is close to seven feet tall and frequently wears a hoodie. Fetterman has pandered to the far left at times, hanging weed and pride flags from his balcony – but he also received criticism for his past role as mayor of Braddock. For example, in 2013, Fetterman – armed with a shotgun – pursued an unarmed African-American jogger who the then-mayor incorrectly believed had been involved in a shooting.

Some have criticized Oz for having a poor social media presence and for lacking a clear message. Fetterman has come under fire for not being transparent about his health and for being absent from the campaign trail for three months after he had a stroke in May. The few polls taken since the primary put Fetterman in the lead.

If the Pennsylvania Senate race were conducted on Twitter, Oz would lose in a landslide. Oz has received a flurry of bad press for his Twitter posts, which many consider corny and misguided. Oz has tweeted out campaign images meant to make Fetterman look bad only to have the opposite effect. In retort, Fetterman has mocked Oz by posting Oz’s photos on his own Twitter account.

Of course, Twitter is not the real world, as several races this cycle have reminded us. Oz’s weak presence on Twitter does not mean that he is doomed. Additionally, Oz is probably the only nationally known Senate candidate this cycle. His tweets are likely to attract more attention than those of any other Senate candidate. Still, while Twitter may not be everything, it does matter, and it could make the difference in a tight race.

Moreover, Oz’s Twitter problems are representative of some of his broader messaging struggles. Oz frequently tweets comparisons of Fetterman with Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders. Most Pennsylvanians probably don’t care about Sanders. Oz should attack Fetterman on his actual policy positions and argue that they are out of line with Pennsylvania voters. And Oz should tie Fetterman to President Biden’s unpopular policies.

Some evidence suggests that Oz is starting to understand his errors. Oz’s tweets have recently focused on Fetterman’s opposition to school choice, his support for single-payer healthcare, and his soft-on-crime approach. Oz has also highlighted his campaign stops across Pennsylvania. All of this will serve the candidate better than his terrible images and memes.

The logistics of Oz’s campaign are a mixed bag. Politico recently reported on how Oz had not run campaign ads since the primary, though it noted that outside groups are running ads in the meantime. But Fetterman has outraised Oz by $7 million, has outspent him by $3 million, and has $4 million more on hand. The National Republican Senatorial Committee responded to the Politico story by observing that Oz had held 75 events since the primary, while Fetterman held none, implying that Oz is running a superior campaign. The race is attracting more national attention. Last week, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis campaigned for Republican gubernatorial nominee Doug Mastriano. DeSantis urged Pennsylvanians to vote for Oz.

Oz is indeed campaigning hard, but he needs to work on crafting a message and getting it out effectively across all platforms. Fetterman has a healthy lead over Oz, but it is not insurmountable. The latest poll only has Fetterman up by four.

As for Fetterman: on top of his Twitter dominance, he receives positive earned media. He has gained national attention because he is an unapologetic liberal who strikes a populist tone. Many Democrats hope that Fetterman can overcome the odds of being a liberal in a swing state in a tough year for Democrats. If Fetterman succeeds, he will show the way for liberals to win big on unapologetically liberal ideas.

But Fetterman faces questions about his health. Amid much positive press, he has endured some damaging coverage about his stroke, which appears to have been much more serious than initially reported. Oz has started to attack Fetterman for his lack of campaign presence, saying that Fetterman stays in his basement.

Fetterman’s absence from the campaign trail may be taking its toll. Even in the age of social media, local media coverage is important. While Fetterman may receive national attention, if local Pennsylvania outlets are not covering him and people don’t see him at their community events, Oz could gain ground.

Fetterman finally returned to the campaign trail Aug. 12, but only spoke for 11 minutes. Many Conservatives on Twitter mocked a portion of Fetterman’s delivery of his speech. If Fetterman’s campaign appearances continue to come across this way, they could make further problems for Fetterman.

So far, Fetterman’s main message has focused on how Oz did not live in Pennsylvania until recently. Before announcing his run, Oz had lived in New Jersey. Among other tactics, Fetterman has tried to induct Oz into the New Jersey Hall of Fame, has hired former Jersey Shore TV star Snooki to run a video calling for Oz to come back to the Garden State, and tweeted out a bingo card for new Pennsylvania residents, aimed at Oz. This approach could be fruitful – many candidates lose races due to their lack of deep ties to a state or district. On the other hand, some towns in New Jersey are effectively suburbs of Philadelphia. Biden claimed to be Pennsylvania’s third senator because he was from Delaware, similar to Jersey in its proximity to Pennsylvania. Whatever he gains from this issue, Fetterman can’t afford to focus solely on it.

Is Oz doing damage to Fetterman with his message about the Democrat’s lack of public events? Keep in mind that in 2020, Donald Trump tried a similar strategy against Biden, but Biden won. In any case, Fetterman did recently hold his first in-person event. If Fetterman can campaign normally or semi-normally for the rest of the cycle, then this issue will likely fade.

Even if Fetterman does not resume normal campaigning, Oz’s attacks could come off as mean-spirited against an opponent with a health issue. And for many voters, Fetterman’s lack of events may pale as an issue compared with record inflation and gas prices, along with a looming recession. But campaigning can spell the difference between victory and defeat in tight races, and if the race remains tight, Fetterman’s public absence would likely prove a liability.

Both campaigns appear to be latching onto a single issue – Fetterman to Oz’s state residency, Oz to Fetterman’s lack of campaigning. The candidates may yet be surprised by how voters react to those issues. For now, Fetterman’s financial advantage and ability to conjure positive press gives him a slight edge. But if Oz can craft a more cohesive message and boost his fundraising, while continuing to hold a large number of events, he could end up with the superior campaign – especially amid a tough political environment for Democrats. In short, there is a clear roadmap for an Oz victory. But will Oz follow it?

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