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John Fetterman's trolling could win him a seat in the U.S. Senate

The Democrat has deployed memes, airplanes and "Snooki" to cast Mehmet Oz as a carpetbagger.

Months ago, Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. John Fetterman was forced off the campaign trail in his race for the U.S. Senate after he had a stroke and underwent surgery to install a pacemaker. In place of the in-person politicking that he relied on to win his primary race, his team has been forced to get creative in the contest against the GOP candidate, celebrity doctor Mehmet Oz.

There’s a lot of trolling in politics these days, and it often includes inflammatory statements focused on race or immigration status. In a marvelous subversion of those smear tactics, Fetterman’s team argues that Oz is an immigrant who doesn’t connect with the history and culture of Pennsylvanians and doesn’t understand the values of the people he seeks to represent. Not because Oz’s parents were born in Turkey. That’s not a problem. The problem is Oz is from New Jersey.

Oz as a New Jerseyan is a theme the Fetterman campaign and its supporters have hammered hard on the past few weeks. There was the video from “Jersey Shore” star Nicole “Snooki” Polizzi wishing Oz luck on his move to Pennsylvania to “look for a new job.” There was the compilation of Oz’s mansions, not one of which is in Pennsylvania. And most recently, there was a video of Fetterman launching a petition to get Oz inducted into the New Jersey Hall of Fame.

“Where are you from?” can be a loaded question, but you’d think that by time candidates decide to begin begging a community for its support, they would be able to provide an answer. It’s almost always a mess when they aren’t, as we saw in New York when skepticism over mayoral candidate Eric Adams’ home address ran high. But Oz’s inability to provide a satisfying answer has left him vulnerable to the constant and cheerful hits Fetterman’s camp doles out.

In general, being a newcomer to a state may matter even less today than it did when Hillary Clinton won a New York Senate seat in 2000; still, Fetterman’s campaign accusing Oz of being an outsider has been deployed with tremendous skill against the Republican who was living in New Jersey as recently as 2020.

It can’t be ignored that trolling Oz gives Fetterman more time and space in which to recover after, according to him, he “almost died.” There are lingering concerns about when Fetterman will be able to resume the retail politicking he used to win the primary in a landslide. He’s done a few live appearances in recent weeks to try to tamp down on those worries, including appearing at a fundraiser in Philadelphia Thursday.

It’s a mistake to think, though, that the Fetterman campaign only has gimmicks in the tank.

Meanwhile, Oz’s campaign has tried to dull the attack on his residency by targeting Fetterman’s absence from the campaign trail. “Fetterman hasn’t faced voters in months — but he did have time for a family vacation to the Jersey Shore,” Oz communications director Brittany Yanick said in an email to NBC News. “Now that he’s back, John Fetterman can’t hide from voters forever.” Fetterman’s campaign deftly responded that “John just visited — Dr. Oz still basically lives there.”

It’s a mistake to think, though, that the campaign only has gimmicks in the tank. The tweets are just a part of an overall strategy that has helped keep Fetterman afloat even as he’s been mostly out of sight. When the pieces are put together, it’s clear that the Fetterman campaign has a solid shot at helping the Democrats hold control of the Senate, if not expand their majority.

From the primary in late April through July, Fetterman’s campaign brought in $9.9 million in fundraising. That’s roughly $8.8 million more than Oz raised in that same time frame. Oz, though, is rich — he pumped millions into his primary race and loaned his campaign another $2.2 million during that period.

Fetterman’s cash advantage has been used well so far, including for TV ads that hammer away at Oz for being an out-of-touch rich celebrity. Also, some of that money went toward renting a plane and flying it over a Jersey Shore beach with a banner that read “Hey Dr. Oz, Welcome Home to NJ! ♥ John” for a bit of IRL trolling on Fourth of July weekend.

The combination of money, relatability and trolling over residency has Fetterman doing well in a state that so far seems to appreciate his simple style when compared with Oz’s affected folksiness. (See Oz making a trip to a grocery store in April for an example of the cringe that the good doctor is dispensing.) The most recent polling out of the state shows Fetterman with a solid, though not insurmountable, lead against Oz among those polled.

It’s clear that the efforts are rattling Oz, whose team has tried (and failed) to duplicate Fetterman’s online success. For example, one tweet featured a picture of a milk carton with Fetterman’s face and the text “wya? 👀,” trying to draw attention to Fetterman’s time off the campaign trail. It backfired spectacularly. “He’s in Pennsylvania,” one user responded. “You can’t see him because you’re in New Jersey.”

Of course, it will be great if and when Fetterman is able to get back to the places he was visiting out in rural Pennsylvania. The fact that he’s on the upswing in these summer months before Pennsylvanians really tune in to the general election is a great sign for the fall. And unless he’s somehow endorsed by the ghost of William Penn himself, I doubt that Oz overcomes the “outsider” label Fetterman has firmly affixed to him.