On a fine 80-degree day down the Shore in July, vacationing Pennsylvanians witnessed something curious in the sky: a gentle troll.
“HEY DR. OZ, WELCOME HOME TO NJ! ❤ JOHN” read the banner, trailing an airplane along the Jersey Shore from Cape May to Brigantine. The “John” in question was Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate in Pennsylvania.
The message wasn’t hard to decipher. It’s what Fetterman — a tattooed and meaty-knuckled former steeltown mayor — has been saying about his Republican opponent, svelte television doctor Mehmet Oz, from the beginning: “I’m an unreconstructed yinzer. And you’re some rich guy from Jersey who wants a Senate seat in Pennsylvania.”
In a contentious and tightly split election season with many issues dividing the candidates, Fetterman has made Oz’s three decades of North Jersey residency the centerpiece of a meme campaign designed to paint Oz as a state-hopping opportunist. (Oz changed his residency to Pennsylvania after the 2020 election, initially at the Bryn Athyn address of his wife’s parents. He holds a driver’s license, medical license and gun permit in the state.)
From Pittsburgh to York, cars might sport bumper stickers boosting “Oz for NJ.” No less a Jersey saint than the E Street Band’s Steven Van Zandt has weighed in on Twitter, asking Oz to come back to Jersey and go surfing. So has Nicole “Snooki” Polizzi, best known for her variable alcohol tolerance on MTV reality show “The Jersey Shore.”
“Good luck, you got this, and Jersey loves you!” gushed Polizzi, whom the Fetterman campaign paid $393.75 to wish “Mehmet” well upon “moving to Pennsylvania to find a new job.”
— John Fetterman (@JohnFetterman) July 14, 2022
But on the baking parking lot of a Wawa gas station in Pennsauken, New Jersey, electrician Brian Darby doesn’t see the problem, or the joke — just more Pennsylvania bigwigs heaping trash on his home state.
Oz should stand tall, he said.
“You should be proud to be coming from New Jersey,” said Darby, a large and sturdy man filling air into the tires of a large and sturdy Dodge Ram pickup. “That’s exactly what I think. You should own Jersey, because guess what? You’re not going to be owned by Pennsylvania. Why be a man without a state?”
The Wawas of New Jersey were full of opinions, it turns out. But outside a station in Brooklawn, self-identified libertarian and cryptocurrency advocate Steve Prager was far less eager to claim Oz for the Garden State.
“That guy’s an idiot ... I wouldn't even know he was from New Jersey,” Prager said. “Go talk to 10 people walking in here and ask them that question. Nobody — that guy's not from New Jersey.”
Prager figures Oz might still win as a Republican in Pennsylvania, because Democrats are “so crazy.”
What’s most surprising, however, is that New Jerseyans care at all.
Why does South Jersey care about the Fetterman-Oz race?
“I can count on one finger the number of times the average person in New Jersey has paid close attention to a statewide race in Pennsylvania,” said John Froonjian, director of the Hughes Center for Public Policy at New Jersey’s Stockton University.
This time around, Jersey has had little choice. Fetterman has taken the campaign to the borders and shores of Jersey. So is this the most important issue dividing the candidates, we asked Fetterman’s campaign? Whether Oz is from Jersey?
“Our campaign is also able to walk and chew gum at the same time,” responded campaign spokesperson Joe Calvello, who said they spend plenty of time on subjects like reproductive rights and raising the minimum wage.
But clearly Fetterman has internal polls showing that pinning Oz to Jersey is an effective strategy, said Pennsylvania political analyst Terry Madonna.
“He made that a central part of his campaign: You know, 'Dr. Hollywood the carpetbagger,'” Madonna said.
More important, the campaign has got its message out by slipping the usual shackles of politics and entering the realm of simple entertainment, said Froonjian. Fetterman was aided in this by Oz’s celebrity status, and a Betsy Ross Bridge's worth of trolls. And indeed, that bridge carries a billboard welcoming Jerseyans to Pennsylvania “just like Dr. Oz”.
— John Fetterman (@JohnFetterman) July 27, 2022
“Fetterman has kept people laughing,” said Froonjian.
At a Mt. Ephraim Wawa, laughing is the first thing Charlie Giletto did when asked of Fetterman’s Jersey barrage.
“It's great! I think it’s a great way to run a campaign,” said Giletto, who works customer service at a local car company. “I think it’s really using the internet in a really smart way. I think Democrats don’t do that enough…. I saw that Cameo he got Snooki to do, it was hilarious."
He’s not offended?
“Nah, we’re Jersey,” he said. “We own that (expletive).”
“We’ve heard all the jokes,” agreed Cheryl Smith, a baker in Haddon Township. Maybe it gets a little childish sometimes, she admits. But she still follows Fetterman on Instagram.
Mark Sterner, a white-mustached and “semi-retired” transport driver for seniors in Camden County, would rather Fetterman kept Jersey out of his mouth.
“It’s insulting,” he said. “It’s not right.” Besides, after watching crime reports in Philadelphia he’s pretty sure being from Jersey is hardly a disqualification for governance.
Oz, for his part, has mostly avoided talking about the Garden State. Instead, his campaign staff leaned into his Delaware childhood “in the Greater Philadelphia region,” and the years he spent at University of Pennsylvania studying business and medicine. As of late last year, Pennsylvania is also one of the states where the Republican candidate owns a home.
“He will continue to outwork John Fetterman by spending time in communities everyday across Pennsylvania,” said spokeperson Brittany Yanick.
For those who might question Oz's local sandwich bone fides after a well-publicized visit to beloved tourist mecca Pat’s King of Steaks, staff lists his favorite hoagie as “The Italian, of course — from Lee's Hoagies in Southampton.”
Lee's Hoagie House is, of course, a Philly-founded chain with multiple locations in New Jersey.
Meanwhile, Fetterman's campaign has started a petition to induct Oz into the New Jersey Hall of Fame, and say they've gathered 15,000 signatures. A Hall of Fame representative said the organization is "apolitical," and dryly noted that nominations for this year have long been closed.
But as far as Cherry Hill’s Keshia Thomas is concerned, dividing the two states is all for show.
A self-avowed Jersey girl from the Shore, she crosses into Philadelphia all the time for entertainment. “And they're coming down here to go to the Jersey Shore, because they don't have a shore,” she said.
In the end, she said, the politicians are just going to do whatever they want. So New Jersey and Pennsylvania should stick together.
“We share the Eagles,” she said. “At least, some of us do!”
Perhaps half of the people we encountered had no interest in either Oz or Fetterman. And some saw nationwide stakes in any race, anywhere.
But one man in a dusty work shirt, carrying his lunch from the Mt. Ephraim Wawa with both hands, was far more concerned with the state of modern journalism.
“Wait,” he said, visibly winding up for a trademark Jersey heckle. “Someone’s paying you money to stand outside a Wawa?"
Matthew Korfhage is a culture reporter for the USA TODAY Network's Atlantic Region How We Live team. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org | Twitter: @matthewkorfhage
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY NETWORK: Dr. Oz Senate race trolls Jersey with Snooki. NJ has mixed feelings