Democrat John Fetterman turned 53 last week, and celebrated with an unexpected "birthday gift" from Dr. Mehmet Oz, his Republican rival for Pennsylvania’s U.S. Senate seat: a viral video of the celebrity physician at a grocery store railing against rising consumer prices that the hulking Lieutenant Governor exploited to hammer his opponent as out of touch – over and over and over again.
The 38-second video, posted to Oz's social media in early April, showed the Republican at a grocery store – which he called "Wegner's," seemingly a mashup of grocery chains Wegmans and Redner's – complaining about the price of the items required to make a "crudité," a French word for a vegetable appetizer plate.
"Guys, that's $20 for crudité, and this doesn't include the tequila," Oz said. "I mean, it's outrageous. We've got Joe Biden to thank for this."
And on his Aug. 15 birthday, Fetterman simply responded, "In PA, we call this a…veggie tray" – and in doing so opened up the floodgates of commentary on social media and beyond.
"I never dreamt “Dr. Oz” and “Crudités” would trend nationally on Twitter- on my birthday- but here we are," Fetterman wrote in a subsequent post.
Fetterman pummeled Oz, and got a lot of love from people who may or may not spend too much time on social media. But at the heart of it all, Fetterman’s goal was clear: to expose Oz’s perceived lack of Pennsylvania roots
“Fetterman looks like, talks like, and lives in Pennsylvania,” said Robert Shrum, an elections expert and political science professor at the University of Southern California. “He’s not a center-city Philly person, but he’s going to carry Philly on ideological and issue grounds,” Shrum said. “But out there in the rest of the state, he’s different than your standard-issue candidate.”
Despite his status as the state's lieutenant governor, Fetterman doesn’t have the typical politician’s well-honed appearance. It’s been reported that he owns one suit, specifically to wear at the Pennsylvania State Capitol (He wrote on Twitter last year: "To be fair, I only own that one suit because otherwise I’m not allowed on the PA senate floor"). Rather, he seems to live in Carhartt hoodies, blue jeans, and shorts. His head is shaved, his goatee is greying, and his rolled-up sleeves expose a handful of tattoos. He also declined to live in the lieutenant governor's residence, instead pushing for the state to divest from the house.
If you told him that he looked less like a Senator and more like a worker ending his factory shift, he might laugh and thank you for it.
On the other hand, Oz’s campaign is seemingly being hurt by his well-manicured status as a celebrity daytime TV host and Oprah-approved health guru, Shrum said. And recent polling appears to back that up: FiveThirtyEight's polling average shows Oz trailing Fetterman by about 10 points, with recent polls – even those conducted by Republican pollsters – showing the lieutenant governor in the lead.
The recently revived grocery store video, in which Oz metaphorically tripped, fell, and landed on his own spear, didn’t help matters.
Oz opens the video saying he was buying crudité – a French word for a vegetable appetizer plate – grabbing a head of broccoli, a bundle of asparagus, a bag of carrots, and a few containers of guacamole and salsa, all the while remarking incredulously on the price of each item.
“Guys, that’s $20 for crudité, and that doesn’t even include the tequila. And we’ve got Joe Biden to thank for this,” Oz finishes, staring down the camera.
For a few months, the video sat, relatively unremarked upon. Then, in August, the whims of Twitter brought it back to the surface, and Fetterman pounced.
And his campaign was seemingly rewarded for the candidate's efforts, creating “Wegner’s” stickers as donation gifts to take advantage of the situation’s virality and raising more than $500,000 in the day after the video resurfaced, his communications director told CNBC.
Fetterman's campaign has been, in large part, about “othering” Oz, casting him as a wealthy carpetbagger rolling in to Pennsylvania from New Jersey, without concern for the working people of the Rust Belt. “The rich and powerful don’t care about PA. They’re too busy sending jobs overseas, ripping off American workers and eating…crudités,” Fetterman tweeted.
"What the race is coming down to is authenticity — and therefore, real representation," said Charles Hunt, an assistant professor of political science at Boise State University. “When we talk about representation, when we talk about authenticity, we’re saying, are you one of us? Are you like us? What we’re trying to do is elect someone who is like us and would make the same kinds of decisions about policy, about politics, that we would,” Hunt said.
Political partisanship is the most likely determining factor whether someone is going to vote Democratic for Fetterman or Republican for Oz, Hunt acknowledged. But Pennsylvania’s status as a state with a close split between Republican and Democratic voters means that candidates are taking every possible angle to snag votes for themselves. The once-reliable blue state went for Donald Trump in 2016, but was won by Scranton-born Joe Biden in 2020.
“If he can peel off independents and Republicans who think that Oz is an outsider, that he doesn’t understand us, doesn’t have a sense of what we’re all about, can’t adequately represent us in the Senate,” it won’t be close anymore, Hunt said.
What remains to be seen with the rest of the campaign is how Oz will respond. He’s laid out attacks on Fetterman’s wealthy parents, called his political platform “radical,” and repeatedly called him out for debates. All that’s left, Shrum predicted, is for Oz to go deeply negative — which could greatly backfire on a candidate who is so well-suited to a war of words.
“[Fetterman] is ideally suited to social media…but what he’s conveying on it is what’s making the difference,” Shrum said. “It’s got a sense of humor. It’s not bitter, it’s funny.”