The Fetterman-Oz meme campaign, illustrated

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Illustrated portrait of John Fetterman
Illustrated portrait of John Fetterman

A banner towed by an airplane over the Jersey Shore.

A troll website with a doctored image of a shirtless candidate.

The rivals for Pennsylvania’s open U.S. Senate seat are turning to uncommon tactics to paint their opponent as unqualified or unfit. Since emerging from the primaries, Democratic nominee John Fetterman has waged a relentless trolling offensive, creating moments that often went viral on social media portraying Republican rival Mehmet Oz as an out-of-state elitist. Oz began countering with his own posts questioning Fetterman’s health and willingness to debate, as well as his policy positions.

The contentious race is unfolding one meme at a time. But behind the eye-catching — sometimes eye-rolling — visuals, there are strategic messages each candidate is pushing with voters as they try to define the opponent’s personality and experience.

Oz is a longtime New Jersey resident.

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Fetterman has taken to the skies to question Oz’s Pennsylvania bona fides over his longtime residency in neighboring New Jersey. The Democrat’s campaign rented a plane to fly a banner reading “HEY DR. OZ. WELCOME HOME TO NJ! ♥ JOHN” over the Garden State coastline and funded a billboard at a state border crossing.

To make the point, he has also commissioned celebrity cameos from Jersey Shore personality “Snooki” and musician Steven Van Zandt, and petitioned supporters for Oz’s induction to the New Jersey Hall of Fame.

Fetterman has committed to just one debate.

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Fetterman paused campaign events in mid May following a stroke that raised questions about his health. Oz’s campaign accused his rival of being afraid to debate or withholding information about the state of his health. Fetterman has committed to one debate Oct. 25.

The celebrity doctor has posted memes including a missing-person notice for Fetterman on milk cartons and a website characterizing him as a “basement bum,” with a “View upcoming events” button that evades any attempt to click on it. Fetterman began holding public events again this summer.

Oz is part of the wealthy elite.

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The Fetterman campaign has focused on Oz’s wealth, depicting him as someone who does not understand the everyday plight of Pennsylvanians. A video Oz filmed at a local supermarket in April went viral in August after Fetterman retweeted it. In the video, Oz got the name of the store wrong and complained about the rising cost of crudites (Fetterman suggested that the cut-up vegetable appetizer is called a “veggie tray”). Other posts included a “Family Feud”-style video that calls out Oz for his multiple homes.

Fetterman supports radical policy and lived off his parents’ money.

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In other posts, Oz paints Fetterman as a radical socialist who claims to represent the working class but has lived off his parents’ money. Fetterman has said he does not identify as a democratic socialist. Oz’s posts blame Fetterman, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Elizabeth Warren and President Biden for issues such as inflation. He also criticized his Democratic rival for being soft on crime.

The campaign continued this week, with Oz posting a meme attacking Fetterman’s tax policy and Fetterman sharing a TikTok video with doctors criticizing the famous cardiothoracic surgeon.

Colby Itkowitz contributed to this report.

About this story

Emoji in the headline graphic are adapted from ©Twitter 2022. Tweets are from official accounts of John Fetterman and Mehmet Oz. Edited by Kevin Uhrmacher, Ann Gerhart, Madison Walls, Kainaz Amaria and Sean Sullivan. Copy editing by Carey L. Biron.