John Fetterman doesn’t want to be just another white guy from the Midwest promoting populism.
He wants to be the reason Pennsylvania has two Democrats in the Senate, and he’s willing to do the most to get there.
Accusing the competition of carpetbagging? Fine. Enlisting a reality TV star for laughs? Great.
Fetterman’s quest to beat Republican nominee Mehmet Oz is helping shape an election narrative in which both parties are trying to deflate their competition by any means necessary. And the state’s very-much-online race for the upper chamber is emerging as one of the most eccentric — and consequential — contests of the cycle.
“Being the thumbs behind a large account like that myself, it’s good to have an audience and to get a message out,” said Angelo Greco, a communications adviser who runs social media strategies for progressive candidates. “It also helps you understand the pulse of what people are talking about.”
The relatability factor, for Fetterman, is big. While he stands out in person (literally, at 6 feet, 9 inches), he seems to fit in well online, pushing the conversation beyond the more predictable proxy wars fought among the far right and far left.
He’s done so by largely staying away from the things progressives get criticized for the most: pushing what many see as fringe messaging and trying to relitigate past elections.
Fetterman isn’t concerned with much of that.
Rather, the state’s Democratic lieutenant governor has set his sights directly on Oz, the physician with a reality show who has former President Trump’s full support, and his life outside of Pennsylvania.
Most recently, Fetterman enlisted the help of Nicole “Snooki” LaValle, a former star of the former MTV reality show “Jersey Shore,” to make the case that Oz doesn’t reside in the state where he’s running for Senate.
“I heard that you moved from New Jersey to Pennsylvania to look for a new job,” LaValle said in a Cameo appearance, which Fetterman dutifully quote tweeted, adding additional context: “Hey @DrOz JERSEY loves you + will not forget you!!!”
Fetterman also encouraged his supporters to sign a petition to add Oz to the New Jersey Hall of Fame.
The tactics have kept him in the spotlight, even as Fetterman himself has been sidelined from the campaign trail since suffering a stroke days before the state’s primary election almost two months ago.
They’ve also gone over well with Democrats, who see them as newer ways to engage voters.
“I do believe that Twitter’s not real life,” Greco acknowledged. “But let’s be honest, there are a lot of people who are influencers who are shaping opinions that are on Twitter. I do think there’s actually something to it.”
Fetterman’s team agrees that there’s a method to the madness. Most of it, insiders say, comes from the man himself.
“We all take our cues from style to substance from him,” said Joe Calvello, Fetterman’s communications director. “This is him and it’s always going to be him. That’s his strength.”
Fetterman often tweets himself, writing funny blips to his 650,000 some followers, and will occasionally put together a meme. He’ll quickly check in to see how staffers think it will play beforehand, and much of it gets posted.
That approach is somewhat rare in Democratic politics. Usually, social media posts from blue check mark or “verified” accounts are written, edited and produced by several people removed from the principal. Fetterman’s closeness to the content, however, makes him more authentic, allies say. He was a big tweeter even before he entered the race and plans to stay that way.
Progressives see parallels between Fetterman’s approach and that of a few other “extremely online” Democrats: Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.)
In 2020, Sanders’s campaign formed what was considered by digital natives to be a highly sophisticated online operation, where scores of people took to their computers to fight his most fervent political battles over policies. That approach, in turn, helped him generate a massive email list and to raise small dollar donations.
Ocasio-Cortez, meanwhile, dialed up frequent Twitter and Instagram live sessions from teaching moments into national platforms to educate voters on everything from inside looks at how bills are passed to personal accounts of being on Capitol Hill during the Jan. 6 insurrection.
Allies say that highly personal style is now proving effective for Fetterman, and Democrats are coming around to the idea that they can shake up the old online playbook to have more fun, and they hope, more electoral impact.
“The Fetterman campaign is running an incredible counter to conventional wisdom … that is yielding positive results on the ground and through online fundraising,” said Adam Parkhomenko, a Democratic strategist whose own prolific Twitter presence regularly attracts Republican’s ire.
Seeing firsthand how to jab the other side for political points — or at least to make a point stick — he says Fetterman’s style is both engaging and effective.
“It is no surprise that Dr. Oz has a new daddy whose name is John Fetterman,” Parkhomenko joked.
Republicans in the state see the wisdom of the strategy, but also sounded a note of caution.
“Fetterman’s Twitter assault has worked mostly because it is unopposed,” said Keith Naughton, a Pennsylvania-based GOP strategist.
“If Oz wasn’t mentally and physically on vacation, it might be an even fight. Pennsylvania is a very parochial state, so the ‘outsider’ argument is always powerful,” he added. “The danger for Fetterman is if he falls in love with ‘winning Twitter’ as hardly any voters are engaged there and candidates can get sucked into the quicksand.”
Oz himself last month on a radio program dismissed the social media onslaught as “clever little videos.” He also told Fox News’s Laura Ingraham that Fetterman “has been hiding from voters for the last few months.”
The Hill reached out to Oz’s campaign for comment.
For now, polls indicate that Fetterman has the edge over Oz. A new Fox News survey released this week found the Democratic nominee surging more than 10 points ahead of his Trump-backed rival. Fetterman came in at 47 percent to Oz’s 36 percent among registered voters in the state. Fetterman also has a significantly higher likability factor than Oz, according to the poll.
“While John Fetterman’s tactics might seem unique for a party that so rarely takes digital organizing seriously, Fetterman’s social media jabs are much more than simply tweets,” said McKenzie Wilson, communications director at Data For Progress, a left-wing think tank and polling organization that supports Fetterman’s bid.
“He’s using every tool in the toolbox to relentlessly drive the message that Oz does not understand Pennsylvanian’s needs and won’t fight for them in D.C,” Wilson said. “Hammering that Oz does not live in the state is simply a fact – and one that clearly connects with Pennsylvania voters.”
Democrats are on the defensive this cycle. Some in the party say it’s a little more likely that they will retain control of the Senate than the House, but aligned groups and operatives are working to make sure it’s not a total tossup.
Once Fetterman beat out his more moderate counterparts for the nomination, top figures in the party, including President Biden, coalesced behind his bid. His Twitter persona was a surprise to some, but something they see working.
“Fetterman is demolishing Oz online because he’s not communicating like a politician,” said Matt Bennett of the centrist think tank Third Way.
“He’s funny and irreverent. He swears. He needles and mocks his rival. Just like the entertaining — but normal — people we all know.”