John Fetterman doesn’t want to be just another white Midwesterner promoting populism.
He wants to be the reason Pennsylvania has two Senate Democrats, and he’s willing to do what he can to make it happen.
Accusing the competition of sagging? Fine. Enlisting a Reality TV Star to Laugh? Big.
Fetterman’s attempt to beat Republican nominee Mehmet Oz helps shape an election narrative in which both parties attempt to dump their competition by any means necessary. And the state’s online race for the upper chamber is shaping up to be one of the most eccentric — and consistent — competitions of the cycle.
“Being the thumb behind a big account like this myself, it’s good to have an audience and send a message,” said Angelo Greco, a communications consultant who develops social media strategies for progressive candidates. “It also helps you get the pulse of what people are talking about.”
The relationship factor is big for Fetterman. While he stands out in person (literally at 6ft, 9inches), he seems to be fitting in well online and pushing the conversation beyond the more predictable proxy wars being waged between the far right and the far left.
He has done so by largely staying away from what progressives are most criticized for: pushing what many see as fringe messages and attempting to reinterpret past elections.
Fetterman doesn’t care much about it.
Rather, the Democratic Lieutenant Governor of the State of Oz, the doctor with a reality show who has the full support of former President Trump, and his life outside of Pennsylvania has squarely targeted.
Most recently, Fetterman enlisted the help of former MTV reality show Jersey Shore star Nicole “Snooki” LaValle to argue that Oz doesn’t live in the state where he’s running for Senate .
“I heard you moved to Pennsylvania from New Jersey to look for a new job,” LaValle said in a cameo that Fetterman dutifully made Quote tweeted and added additional context: “Hey @DrOz JERSEY loves you + won’t forget you!!!”
Fetterman also encouraged his supporters to sign a petition to have Oz inducted into the New Jersey Hall of Fame.
The tactic has kept him in the spotlight, even as Fetterman himself has been sidelined from campaigning since suffering a stroke days before the state primary almost two months ago.
They’ve also resonated well with Democrats, who see them as newer ways to engage voters.
“I don’t think Twitter is real life,” Greco admitted. “But let’s face it, there are a lot of people who are opinion leaders on Twitter. I think there’s actually something to it.”
Fetterman’s team agrees that there is a method to the madness. Most, insiders say, comes from the man himself.
“We all take inspiration from him, from style to substance,” said Joe Calvello, Fetterman’s director of communications. “He is and always will be. That is his strength.”
Fetterman often tweets himself, posting funny blips to his 650,000 followers and putting together the occasional meme. He’ll be checking in quickly to see how the staff think it will play beforehand, and much of that will be released.
This approach is somewhat rare in democratic politics. Typically, social media posts from blue tick or “verified” accounts are written, edited, and produced by multiple people remote from the principal. But Fetterman’s proximity to the content makes him more authentic, allies say. He was a big tweeter before he entered the race and plans to remain so.
Progressives see parallels between Fetterman’s approach and that of some other “extremely online” Democrats: Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (DN.Y.)
In 2020, Sanders’ campaign formed what was viewed by digital natives as a sophisticated online operation, with scores of people taking to their computers to wage its fiercest political battles over policy. This approach, in turn, helped him build a massive email list and raise small dollar donations.
Ocasio-Cortez, meanwhile, dialed into national platforms for frequent Twitter and Instagram Live sessions of Classroom Moments to educate voters on everything from inside, like bills to personal accounts for being on Capitol Hill during the riot be passed from January 6th.
Allies say Fetterman’s highly personal style is now proving effective for Fetterman, and Democrats are getting the idea they can shake up the old online playbook for more fun, and they hope, more electoral clout to have.
“The Fetterman campaign is incredibly contrary to conventional wisdom … leading to positive results locally and through online fundraisers,” said Adam Parkhomenko, a Democratic strategist whose own prolific Twitter presence regularly draws the wrath of Republicans.
He’s seen firsthand how to jab the other side for political points — or at least to get a point through — and says Fetterman’s style is both engaging and effective.
“It’s no surprise that Dr. Oz has a new father whose name is John Fetterman,” joked Parkhomenko.
State Republicans see the wisdom of the strategy, but also urged caution.
“Fetterman’s Twitter attack worked largely because it wasn’t countered,” said Keith Naughton, a Pennsylvania-based GOP strategist.
“If Oz wasn’t on vacation mentally and physically, it could be an even fight. Pennsylvania is a very narrow-minded state, so the “outsider” argument is always strong,” he added. “The danger for Fetterman is that he’ll fall in love with Winning Twitter because there’s little voter engagement and candidates can be sucked into quicksand.”
Oz himself dismissed the social media attack as “clever little videos” on a radio show last month. He also told Fox News’ Laura Ingraham that Fetterman “has been hiding from voters for the past few months.”
The Hill reached out to Oz’s campaign for comment.
For now, polls show that Fetterman is superior to Oz. A new Fox News poll was released this week noted the Democratic nominee was more than 10 points ahead of his Trump-backed rival. Among the state’s registered voters, Fetterman garnered 47 percent versus Oz’s 36 percent. According to the poll, Fetterman also has a significantly higher liking factor than Oz.
“While John Fetterman’s tactics may seem unique for a party that so seldom takes digital organizing seriously, Fetterman’s social media jabs are much more than tweets,” said McKenzie Wilson, communications director at Data For Progress, a left-wing think tank and poll Organization supporting Fetterman’s offer.
“He uses every tool in the toolbox to tirelessly spread the message that Oz doesn’t understand the needs of Pennsylvanians and will not fight for them in DC,” Wilson said. “The hammering that Oz doesn’t live in the state is simply a fact — and one that clearly relates to Pennsylvania voters.”
The Democrats are on the defensive this cycle. Some in the party say they’re slightly more likely to retain control of the Senate than the House, but like-minded groups and activists are working to ensure it won’t be a total overthrow.
After Fetterman beat his more moderate peers for the nomination, top party figures, including President Biden, rallied behind his bid. His Twitter persona came as a surprise to some, but something they can see working.
“Fetterman is destroying Oz online because he doesn’t communicate like a politician,” said Matt Bennett of the centrist think tank Third Way.
“He’s funny and irreverent. He swears. He stabs and taunts his rival. Just like the fun – but normal – people we all know.”