By Gillian Murphy
Subtweets, inflammatory videos, and occasionally raunchy memes; no, this is not a recap of recent influencer drama, but techniques of the U.S. midterm elections. More specifically, Pennsylvania’s 2022 Senate election. Tensions are rising across the country as Republicans and Democrats scramble to convince the electorate of their merit amidst high inflation, abortion debates, culture wars, and the general tumult that arises when Americans head to the polls.
As Americans face uncertainty over what the state of their government will be in November, Pennsylvania’s Senate race is proving to exemplify the forces at play, as a battleground state with unconventional Republican and Democratic candidates embroiled in a media circus.
Trump-backed Mehmet Oz, the former TV surgeon and one-week Jeopardy host, faces off against current Democratic Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman, whose Twitter-savvy spunk and working class appeal have driven his campaign. Fetterman continues to firmly contrast himself, the local guy, with Oz, the New Jersian bigwig trying to stake a claim to a state that is not his.
Midterm elections pose a threat to the incumbent Democratic party, as voters seek change halfway through the presidency, and Biden’s low approval rating (around 41.5%) raises concern for Democrats and their slim majority. The fate of the Senate majority rests on a few key races, such as Ohio, Georgia, and Pennsylvania.
Pennsylvania, as a purple state, vacillates between the Democratic and Republican parties – it went for Donald Trump in 2016 by a narrow margin and voted for Biden in 2020 under similar circumstances. November will also see Pennsylvanians voting for a new governor, in an equally tense race featuring a candidate present at the January insurrection, but polls predict a Democratic win. The Pennsylvania Senate seat is up for grabs as the Republican incumbent, Senator Pat Toomey, has decided against running again, leaving the race wide open for Fetterman and Oz.
Though the Pennsylvania race has provided humorous exchanges and headline-worthy moments, it is part of a more serious moment for American politics. The past few years have marked a slippery descent for democracy in a nation that prides itself on being a beacon of liberalism for the rest of the world. With the January 6th insurgency, continuing disputes over fraudulent elections, and increasing infringements on voting rights, these midterms are more than just a referendum on the state of affairs; they are an assessment of America’s capability to hold free, fair, and accepted elections.
Beyond questioning the stability of American institutions, standard election issues remain at play. The economy sits at the top of Americans’ concerns, as inflation soars (8.2% annual rate in September) due to a combination of factors: remaining pandemic struggles, spiraling fuel prices, labor shortages, and the war in Ukraine. Rising prices are making it difficult for Americans to put food on the table, and although Biden inherited many of these economic issues, the President and his party are facing the people’s frustrations.
The Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade over the summer, stripping citizens of the Constitutional right to abortion, fueled Democratic unity. Nonetheless, the impassioned drive of June that gave Democrats optimism for their midterm chances has started to peter out. Even issues such as the divisive immigration policies of Republican governors in Texas and Florida, which saw asylum seekers tricked into cross-country flights, have not stoked the fire as expected. This leaves Republicans once again in line to take back the majority, but nothing is ever certain in American elections.
The Pennsylvania showdown is the Senate race Democrats seem most hopeful about, but it has also demonstrated Trump’s remaining influence in national politics. Trump may remain banned from Twitter, Facebook, and even Discord, but he still manages to make himself heard, and his support of Oz was essential in Oz’s May 2022 primary win.
As Trump endorsed Oz, he heralded their shared celebrity backgrounds in a North Carolina rally, saying, “when you’re in television for 18 years, that’s like a poll. That means people like you.” Since the primaries, Oz has attempted to move beyond Trump branding on his campaign, but winning over the Make America Great Again base is essential if he hopes to beat Fetterman.
As events unfold in Pennsylvania, the American public is reminded of the art of a personal, vindictive campaign. Fetterman and Oz’s personalities have remained at the forefront of both their appeal and the vicious attacks they face.
Tall, bald, tattooed, and with an eternally furrowed brow, Fetterman’s non-traditional image as a politician has given him a certain allure for voters looking to move beyond the typical centrist candidate, such as current Senator Toomey, that Pennsylvania has grown used to. His working-class persona, though not exactly a product of his personal background, has allowed him to reach voters beyond the college-educated base Democrats tend to rely on (“I want to Make More Sh*t in America,” he recently tweeted).
Fetterman’s campaign was interrupted in May, however, when he suffered a stroke that took him off the trail for the summer before an August return. Though Fetterman has tried to downplay the event, it sparked a runaway debate about disability and governance. Oz’s campaign and right-wing media have seized the opportunity to question if Fetterman is fit for office, disparaging his short speeches in public appearances and need for a closed captioning device in a recent NBC News interview to help with auditory processing difficulties. Fetterman has embraced his newfound position as an anti-ableism advocate, but the situation has displayed that there is no personal detail off-limits in American campaigns.
Meanwhile, Fetterman has hounded the fact that Oz is not a “real Pennsylvanian” (Oz only moved to Pennsylvania in 2020). Fetterman’s campaign financed a plane flown over New Jersey, Oz’s home state and the locale of his Hudson Bay mansion, with a banner reading “Hey Dr. Oz! Welcome home to NJ! Love, John” as well as a billboard claiming Oz supports another state’s rival football team. He has also tried to portray Oz as economically out of touch, deriding his use of the term “crudité” for a vegetable platter and his bewilderment at grocery store prices.
Dr. Oz’s star power, however, has won him plenty of fans willing to overlook his carpetbagging (as well as the questionable medical advice, from diet pills to homeopathy, that he spouted in his years on television). He has successfully pounced on Fetterman’s every slip-up, and has managed to paint him as a “soft on crime” candidate in a moment when the Republican party has piled blame on Democrats for rising rates of violence. Fetterman’s criminal justice agenda has led to his characterization by an Oz spokesperson as “the most pro-murderer candidate for the Senate in the entire country”.
Social media has provided the main stage for the Pennsylvania race. Oz has 3.8 million followers on Twitter and lets his TV personality shine through in videos with moving music and soliloquies about American bravery. Fetterman has a more modest 831.8 thousand Twitter followers; his artful use of hashtags, emojis, and surprisingly in-touch meme formats has made his posts popular amongst a diverse audience, causing some of his Oz critiques to go viral. The so-called “trolling offensive” was led by Fetterman, but Oz has not hesitated to partake, tweeting edited photos and Bernie memes about his opponent.
It is easy to get lost in the personal vendettas and petty digs of the Pennsylvania Senate Race, but the heart of the issue is a fight for a position of power in the U.S. Senate that will impact not just Pennsylvanian constituents, but the entire country. Democratic congressional control relies on slim margins, meaning a few Senate races will decide the balance of the legislature. In a race with such substantial political implications, however, personality seems more impactful than politics.
Fetterman has gingerly placed himself in the Democratic center, denying democratic socialist accusations from Oz and latching himself onto stances that are broadly accepted by many Americans, such as marijuana legalization and abortion rights. He is enough of everything to not be much of anything – he has painted himself as a non-establishment candidate who is “not a typical politician,” but how he would actually serve as Senator does not seem to matter as much as the chutzpah of his disses of Oz.
Dr. Oz is also not your regular candidate, coming from a non-political background, which he employs when pitching his agenda: “Surgeons keep their priorities straight and always protect their patients first.” With buzzwords plastered across his campaign site such as illegal immigration, second amendment, law enforcement, and protecting innocent life, he emanates standard Republican rhetoric. Just as Fetterman, though, his policy goals play less of a role than his personality.
On 25 October, Fetterman and Oz held their only debate, a broadcasted interaction that was intensely analyzed as time ticks towards Election Day. The debate brought Fetterman’s post-stroke struggles to the fore, as he faltered while speaking (ruthlessly mocked by Republicans online), but he maintained a uniform Democratic position and a hard line on protecting abortion. Oz presented sharp conservative attacks with TV poise, but also hesitantly distanced himself from Trump, expressing his desire to make “Washington civil again.” The debate, rather than clarifying a frontrunner, only added to the unpredictability of the race.
8 November will determine the fate of the remainder of Biden’s presidency, as well as tip the partisan balance in favor of one party for the foreseeable future. Fetterman currently leads polling by a narrowing 2.3%, but if the past few months have demonstrated anything, it is that this campaign will remain a hostile, fiery fight to the finish line, and success is not guaranteed for either party. There is a great deal at stake, both for Pennsylvania and the U.S. as a whole, and it may all come down to who was the better internet influencer.