In a recent ad spot from John Fetterman, the Pennsylvania lieutenant governor running for an open U.S. Senate seat, he attacked his rival, Mehmet Oz, as “not one of us” and part of the wealthy entertainment elite.
“Hey, Doc Hollywood, save your money, Pennsylvania is not for sale,” Fetterman said in the spot, as video ran of Oz, the longtime syndicated daytime TV host, kissing his star on the Walk of Fame.
It’s certainly not a novel for a campaign to try to tar a rival for for Hollywood ties, but this time it’s a Democrat, Fetterman, trying to tar a Republican, Oz, for his showbiz embrace. It’s a bit of a twist on a common campaign tactic used by the right against their leftward opponents, who have for generations enjoyed a dominance in Hollywood fundraising and endorsements.
In countering Oz’s name recognition, Fetterman even has tried to weaponize celebrity, as when his campaign enlisted Snooki from Jersey Shore to troll Oz in a Cameo spoof, meant to highlight his move from New Jersey to Pennsylvania and play on the disdain that the Keystone State has for its neighbor.
Oz has been trying to take a page from the playbook of Donald Trump, who has endorsed him, by touting his personal brand as just what is needed to take on the Washington establishment. His campaign logo features the same squared off box as his TV show.
Like Trump, Oz also has relished the limelight, serving as Grand Marshall of the Hollywood Christmas Parade, attending red carpet events and Daytime Emmy Awards, for which he has won three times for hosting and the show four times as outstanding talk show.
Even after announcing his Senate run, Oz appeared on the Wall of Fame for a ceremony in February to unveil his star, or which recipients are responsible for a $50,000 sponsorship fee.
At the event, Oz connected the Walk of Fame ceremony itself to his Pennsylvania campaign. He told TMZ, “I think that our state is a wonderful microcosm of the entire country, that you actually have to get people on both sides of the aisle to talk to each other. That’s why I kept talking about the fact that, the glint of that star that Hollywood star, reflects the divine spark, the divinity in our eyes, when we look at each other we see it, so love each other and respect each other.”
His chief rival for the Republican nomination, David McCormick, took note, as his campaign attacked Oz as spending his life putting Fame and Hollywood First.”. A McCormick affiliated PAC already had been up with a spot pegging Oz as a “Hollywood liberal.” “Dr. Oz may be right for Hollywood, but he’s wrong for Pennsylvania.”
The Trump endorsement, however, helped Oz narrowly defeat McCormick in the primary. Fetterman has, to a certain extent, picked up where Oz’s former rival left off. That has meant continued attacks on Oz’s background as a longtime out-of-state resident of Cliffside Park, NJ. As he tries to make inroads among rural and working class voters, Fetterman, often in hoodie and showing off his tattoos, also is attempting to contrast himself to Oz, with the implication being that “Doc Hollywood” is out of touch.
Fetterman has called for raising the minimum wage, protecting unions, addressing climate change, preserving abortion rights and advocating for “compassionate response to immigration reform,” all issues in sync with most Democrats.
Sean Parnell, who dropped out of the GOP Senate primary race last year, told NBC News in May that Fetterman is “sort of Democrat blue-collar hammer-swinging folk hero. He’s not that. So it’s going to be the Republican nominee’s job to point that out and to show that.”
Polls suggest that Fetterman has made inroads. The RealClearPolitics average has him up more than eight points over Oz. A recent Fox News poll, which showed Fetterman with an 11 point lead, showed that fewer Republicans were staying loyal to Oz, 73%, versus Democrats to Fetterman, at 89%.
“The juxtaposition of Fetterman as someone who was born in the state, went to school in the state, was a mayor in the state, against an opponent who has lived in New Jersey and has come [into the public eye] through television — the connection to Hollywood is pretty potent,” said Christopher Borick, professor of political science at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, PA.
Borick noted that Fetterman is essentially linking Oz’s Hollywood connections to his New Jersey residency, both places that aren’t quite “beloved” in Pennsylvania.
“Certainly celebrities here, like anywhere, can help bring attention and, speaking to the right audience, can bring energy to a campaign,” he said. “Their role isn’t always one that is damaging. But it can have a downside, particularly if you are linked to a place that is not a positive to voters.”
Republicans have for some time tried to turn a rival’s Hollywood ties into a negative. Josh Hawley tried to link Claire McCaskill to Harvey Weinstein in his 2018 Senate race. Four years earlier, allies of Mitch McConnell fashioned a mock Hollywood Squares graphic to connect his rival Alison Grimes to Hollywood liberals.
Like other Democrats in hotly contested Senate races this cycle, Fetterman has drawn on Hollywood donors. They include Barbra Streisand, Don Henley, Damon Lindelof, David Mandel, Christian Bale, Marg Helgenberger, Mark Ruffalo, Heather Thomas and John Leguizamo.
Mathew Littman, Los Angeles-based Democratic political strategist, said that Fetterman is not trying to say that “people in the entertainment industry are bad people, but that Oz is a showman, that he is not sincere and that he is out of touch with reality.”
On Ted Nugent’s podcast last spring, Oz argued that his background is an asset. “It’s not bad to be in entertainment. I never lived in Hollywood. I refused to move out there. I like where I live now. But fundamentally, you learn to wage wars against woke ideology, against media that has been perverted. You have to hold your own. The values I have are shared with my fellow citizens of Pennsylvania, and they know that I will fight for them.”
Oz’s campaign has tried to characterize Fetterman as a socialist, pointing to his past support for Bernie Sanders, while trying to undercut his image as a “blue collar tough guy.” Oz has called him a “pretend populist,” but also is trying to make an issue of Fetterman’s absence from the campaign trail. After suffering a stroke just before the Democratic primary, Fetterman plans to return to the trail on Friday at a campaign rally.
A spokesperson for Oz’s campaign told Deadline, “No amount of memes or attacks will distract Pennsylvanians from the paychecks, safety, and job security stolen from them by the radical Biden-Fetterman agenda.” The spokesperson added, “It has been 84 days since John Fetterman’s last public campaign event. He’s been hiding in his basement, avoiding having to publicly answer for his radical, liberal views.”
Borick said that Oz has to be “very careful about not to capitalize on someone’s personal health struggles,” but said that his attacks on Fetterman’s suburban upbringing and parental support as an adult was “probably a better avenue to go down.”
Kathryn Cramer Brownell, associate professor of history at Purdue University and author of Showbiz Politics: Hollywood in American Political Life, noted that “the Republican party has been more successful at turning celebrities into candidates, and the Democratic party has been more successful as getting celebrities to raise money.”
When he entered politics, Reagan, too, faced attacks that he was too much style over substance, she said, but tried to turn his showbiz past into a strength. He recast himself as a “citizen politician” who can “connect more intimately with a voter.”
Trump took his celebrity to another level, seeing ratings as currency and his ability to perform as one of his greatest assets, particularly when it came to stoking resentment. Unlike Oz, he never won an Emmy, but he also tried to use that grievance to his advantage. At one of their presidential debates in 2016, Hillary Clinton mocked Trump for accusing the Emmys of being rigged, and he responded, “I should have gotten it.”
“This is a mindset. This is how Donald thinks, and it’s funny, but it’s also really troubling,” Clinton said.
Oz has noted that his Walk of Fame star is “next to Ronald Reagan’s, and just down the road from Donald Trump’s,” but it’s an open question as to whether he shares with them the same political savvy or ability to connect with voters.
Fetterman is betting that he can neutralize Oz’s fame and withstand Democrats’ midterm challenges with something different and even a bit irreverent. “I do not look like a typical politician,” he said in one of his first ad spots. “I don’t even look like a typical person.”