Fetterman filmed some of his inaugural general-election TV ads in May before a stroke sidelined him. In a one-minute spot released in June, Fetterman lays out what would become the cornerstone of his case against Oz: that Oz, a longtime New Jersey resident, could not be trusted to fight for Pennsylvanians.
Referring to the outsourcing of manufacturing jobs overseas and rising costs squeezing consumers, Fetterman makes a subtle reference to Oz.
“Those decisions were made for us by people that don’t know us,” he says. “And that’s exactly who we’re running against.”
Fetterman pulled off one of the most consequential victories of the election cycle on Tuesday — flipping a GOP-held seat in a battleground state.
There were a lot of ups and downs on the road to that victory. But the strategy of discrediting Oz as an elite outsider who could not be trusted to fight for Pennsylvanians was a consistent theme of Fetterman’s campaign.
The campaign also benefited from a personal brand that Fetterman had honed in his first Senate run, as lieutenant governor, and in the 2022 Democratic primary; an aggressive fundraising and television advertising strategy; a focus on bread-and-butter economics and abortion rights; and the Oz campaign’s major strategic blunders.
Learning The Importance Of Early Money
When Fetterman first tried his hand at higher office, he had already made a splash in the national press during his tenure as mayor of Braddock, a small, economically depressed steel town just outside Pittsburgh.
In the 2016 election cycle, he ran in the Democratic primary for U.S. Senate and was the heavy underdog.
But even then, he displayed a knack for quippy, Pennsylvania-specific messaging. Toward the start of his run in 2015, he dubbed then-presidential candidate Donald Trump “a jagoff” — a Pittsburghese term for “idiot” or “asshole.”
The line was so popular that Fetterman had it printed on T-shirts that his cash-poor Senate campaign sold for much-needed funds. He still lacked the money to advertise on television, though, and his performance was accordingly modest.
He secured 19% of the vote in the Democratic primary — a respectable third-place finish behind former Rep. Joe Sestak and Katie McGinty, a former Pennsylvania secretary of environmental protection. (With deep support from Senate Democrats’ campaign arm, McGinty walked away with the nomination and lost narrowly to GOP Sen. Pat Toomey in the general election.)
“John is smart. He’s funny and he gets it,” recalled Rebecca Katz, a Philadelphia native and founder of the progressive consulting firm New Deal Strategies who worked on that first Senate race.
Indeed, Katz remembered Fetterman texting her during Hillary Clinton’s debates with Trump that he thought Trump was going to win. As the mayor of Braddock, Fetterman had a keen understanding of how Trump capitalized on the anger over the offshoring of manufacturing jobs in industrial communities.
“You don’t need to tell him what the national mood is,” she said.
Winning the lieutenant governor’s race two years later, Fetterman was determined to confront the frustration in Pennsylvania’s struggling cities and industrial towns head on. He made it his mission to turbo-charge the state’s board of pardons, which earned him praise from some Black leaders and criminal justice reformers. He championed marijuana legalization. And he visited all 67 counties in the state, building vital relationships in rural regions where long-neglected Democrats were overjoyed to see him and Republicans had grudging respect for his efforts.
But as Fetterman prepared for a second Senate run in late 2020, Katz knew he would need to overcome one especially prosaic barrier to his success in 2016.
“We had all the right ingredients, except the biggest one: money,” Katz recalled.
Katz knew that Fetterman, who continued to eschew the kind of relationship-driven politics that other candidates have used to climb the ranks, would not have the benefit of a large Rolodex of big-dollar donors.
So for this campaign, Fetterman tapped the digital fundraising firm Middle Seat, which was co-founded by Hector Sigala and Kenneth Pennington, alumni of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign.
“You don’t need to tell him what the national mood is.”
After Fetterman announced his run in February 2021, the campaign set out to translate the enthusiasm behind his bid into a digital fundraising bonanza, rapidly reinvesting the money it raised into more digital fundraising.
The campaign’s “burn rate” — an insider term for the speed with which it was spending its money — raised some eyebrows.
But the return on investment was lucrative. In the first quarter of 2021, the campaign spent $1.9 million on digital fundraising to raise $17 million. And the campaign supplemented that haul with a direct-mail solicitation program that doubled as early engagement with Democratic-leaning Pennsylvania voters.
Fetterman’s massive cash advantage over Rep. Conor Lamb, his chief rival in the Democratic primary, allowed him to air his first TV ad on the last day of February — more than 10 weeks before the May 17 primary.
The one-minute spot introduced Fetterman to voters as a product of central Pennsylvania who moved to Braddock to help out a struggling town.
“No one deserves to be abandoned,” he says in the ad. “All these communities deserve to be helped.”
The move was deliberately designed to goad Lamb and his team, which scrambled to get their own hastily assembled ad on the airwaves in March. But Lamb, who entered the race six months after Fetterman, lacked the funds to keep the spot up, going dark for almost all of April. The miscalculation violated a cardinal rule of campaigning: that it is better to postpone a TV ad blitz than to put ads up and then take ads down.
Fetterman’s policies and messaging mirrored those kinds of aggressive campaign tactics. For example, he set the tone in the race early on by promising he would scrap the filibuster. Lamb followed suit but continued to fight a rearguard battle, arguing that his brand of moderation and record in a swing seat made him more electable.
“There are a wide variety of risks that we took because there was such a strong jovial atmosphere where people were allowed to pitch ideas,” recalled Tommy McDonald, a Philadelphia-based partner at The Win Company who supervised Fetterman’s TV advertising program.
Joe Calvello — Fetterman’s jean jacket-and-beanie-wearing communications director and self-described “consigliere” — described the collaborative environment a bit more colorfully.
Especially as the primary and Fetterman’s stroke faded into the background, the team developed a self-aware cockiness, sense of humor, and penchant for hanging out off the clock that only improved their relationships during the workday. Fetterman himself embraced the ethos with his decision to use AC/DC’s “Back in Black” and Styx’s “Renegade” as his walk-on music for rallies.
“We had this punk rock vibe that other people don’t fucking have,” Calvello said. “The whole team bought into it.”
‘Not One Of Us’
As the Democratic primary came to a close, Fetterman and his team prepared to confront either Oz or hedge fund manager Dave McCormick, who nearly defeated Oz in the Republican primary.
Fortunately for the campaign, mere days before his stroke, McDonald prevailed on Fetterman to shoot hours of footage for TV ads that could be used against either McCormick or Oz. McDonald credits Fetterman for dubbing Oz “Doc Hollywood” and deciding to make an issue out of his Gucci loafers during their filming sessions.
“He riffs and he is very dynamic,” McDonald said.
But the campaign needed a makeover — and a shift eastward to metropolitan Philadelphia — as it prepared for the general election.
Here, too, the campaign got lucky with timing. The day before Fetterman had a stroke, he hired Brendan McPhillips, a veteran of Fetterman’s 2016 run who had led President Joe Biden’s Pennsylvania operation in 2020, to take over as campaign manager for the general election.
McPhillips, a resident of South Philadelphia, helped set up the campaign’s new, second office in Philadelphia, professionalized stagnant parts of the Fetterman operation, and brought on seasoned campaign hands like fundraiser Andrea Ramunno, political director Joe Pierce, and scheduling and advance specialist Sam Thomas.
“Brendan came in and retooled the ship,” Calvello said.
McPhillips, Katz, and the campaign’s pollster Jason McGrath, a partner at the firm GBAO, then developed a three-part plan for contrasting Fetterman, a 6-foot-8 casual dresser with tattoos who listens to Metallica in his Dodge Ram pickup, with Oz, a wealthy TV celebrity doctor and resident of northern New Jersey.
Branding Oz as an outsider was part of what the Fetterman team called “Phase One” of its plan to win.
To hammer home that point, Fetterman eventually used blunter language than the wording in that first ad, stating plainly that Oz is “not one of us.”
“Look, he’s not one of us,” Fetterman said in an early July TV ad in which he spoke directly to the camera.
“He says he’ll fight for working people? OK,” said Fetterman, drawing out the word “OK” with raised eyebrows to emphasize his sarcasm.
Early on, Fetterman made clear to his team that he would not make an issue of Oz’s Islamic faith or his heritage as the son of Turkish immigrants.
In focus groups, the campaign nonetheless tested voters’ reactions to being informed that Oz had served in the Turkish military, and that, as a dual citizen, Oz had voted in Turkey’s recent election.
“It just didn’t hit,” Calvello recalled. “People were like, ‘Oh, that’s weird. He served in the Turkish army. But it’s pretty fucked up that this guy’s from Jersey! What the fuck is this guy doing here if he lives in Jersey?’”
The point of underscoring Oz’s wealth, elite status and lack of ties to Pennsylvania was not only to make fun of New Jersey, which is often the butt of jokes in neighboring New York and Pennsylvania.
The goal was instead to convey, often playfully, that “he’s not one of us and because he’s not one of us, he doesn’t understand us and he won’t fight for us in D.C. because he doesn’t understand the struggles we’re going through,” Calvello said.
Oz emerged from a bruising Republican primary with a favorability rating below 30% in early June.
But the campaign didn’t take for granted that Oz would remain so hobbled, particularly as he consolidated his grip on Republican voters who had backed other candidates in the primary.
“It was important to make sure … that we didn’t give them an inch to define him as ‘a doctor,’” Calvello said. “He was not defined as a doctor. He was defined as a rich asshole from Jersey.”
Phase One was in full effect during June and July while Fetterman was recovering from his stroke, rather than campaigning in person. It was critical to have him communicate with voters through TV ads, some of which were recorded before his stroke and many of which were recorded in his home during his recovery.
He was also involved in the collaborative social media-driven strategy of mocking Oz and creating a lasting impression of the celebrity doctor as a self-interested interloper.
“He was not defined as a doctor. He was defined as a rich asshole from Jersey.”
Fetterman came up with the idea of repurposing the famous meme drawn from the NBC show “30 Rock,” in which Steve Buscemi, an adult dressed as a teenager, says, “How do you do fellow kids?” The meme is shorthand for a conspicuous outsider trying in vain to blend in with an unfamiliar crowd.
The campaign changed the words in the meme to say, “How do you do fellow PA residents?” and posted it on social media.
Impressed with the engagement that social media post — and a handful of others — got, the campaign was soon awash in brainstorming sessions for similar gimmicks in a group chat titled “Troll Patrol.”
Kipp Hebert, a managing director of Katz’s firm New Deal Strategies and Fetterman’s top copywriter, came up with the idea of paying for a cameo of former “Jersey Shore” star Nicole “Snooki” Polizzi wishing Oz luck on his move to Pennsylvania. McDonald suggested flying a banner over the Jersey Shore welcoming Oz home. Trison Braithwaite, an associate at Katz’s firm, assembled a “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous”-style montage of Oz giving tours of his mansions on television that racked up more than 1.5 million views. And Sophie Ota, the campaign’s digital director, was both a key part of the idea development process and responsible for posting the memes and videos on various social media channels.
The nonstop gimmicks led to wall-to-wall press coverage locally and nationally.
Although TV advertisements were the key to the campaign’s success overall, “July was different just because we were able to break through on earned media in a way that you never can,” Katz said.
During this critical period, Oz didn’t do himself any favors. He was missing in action on the campaign trail. That allowed the Fetterman campaign to fill the void.
In mid-August, they trolled Oz over a resurfaced video of the Republican candidate using a purchase of what he dubbed “crudités” as an example of inflation in a regional supermarket, the name of which he botched.
The video perfectly underscored the campaign’s Phase One message that Oz is “not one of us.”
“He doesn’t get us,” Calvello said. “And because he doesn’t get us, he can’t fight for us.”
When Oz did speak up, he actively hurt his cause with comments that underscored his lack of familiarity with the state. For example, he elicited mockery in July for highlighting a visit to Pat’s and Geno’s — two South Philadelphia cheesesteak spots known as tourist haunts and not favored by locals.
The Fetterman team, by contrast, tailored its ads to individual regions in the state with validators and references tied to particular areas. McDonald often purchased billboards to accompany ad releases, like a sign in King of Prussia asking whether Oz thinks the Philadelphia suburb is a European monarch.
And McDonald and his colleagues made a conscious effort to make the campaign’s advertising investments match its philosophy of competing for “every county, every vote.”
To that end, the campaign advertised heavily in the Erie media market, the smallest of the state’s six advertising spheres. Erie, a bellwether county that typically decides the winner of statewide elections, was also the site of Fetterman’s first rally after his stroke in August.
Oz barely advertised in the Erie media market until the final weeks of the campaign.
The results of the strategy were apparent in Fetterman’s 9-plus-point win in Erie County — a more than 8-point improvement over Biden’s 2020 performance. He ultimately outperformed Biden in all but three counties across the state.
“The belief from John that no one should be forgotten and the deep knowledge of Pennsylvania that our team had trickled through the whole campaign,” McDonald said.
‘Taking On The Powerful’
Throughout the general election, Fetterman and his team wove populist economic themes into their efforts to paint a contrast between Fetterman and Oz. Fetterman would fight for good-paying union jobs, the revival of depressed regions, and to end the corruption in Washington, whereas Oz could not be trusted to do any of those things.
“We never left the core framework of taking on the powerful,” McDonald said. “We always stayed true to John’s core values and the core arguments we wanted to make in this campaign.”
In keeping with that framework, the Fetterman campaign rolled out Phase Two in September. Having established that Oz is “not one of us” and “can’t fight for us,” the campaign sought to tell voters what he was for — and the answer they provided was unflattering.
“He’s just out for himself, making a buck,” McPhillips said. “He’s a huckster, hawking bad medicine.”
The Phase Two message was apparent in stories the campaign and its allies helped reporters develop about Oz’s involvement in medical experiments on puppies, and of course, his promotion of snake-oil remedies that he profited from — directly or indirectly — on his TV show.
A TV ad titled “Magic Pill” brought the message home to voters who are less likely to pick up a newspaper.
“Doc Oz made a fortune on TV. I remember his show — he had a magic pill for everything,” Lynne from Indiana, Pennsylvania, says in the ad before outlining some of the outlandish treatments he touted.
“He took advantage of his viewers,” she continues. “Now he expects us to trust him as a politician? Fuhgeddaboudit.”
Finally, in the last few weeks of the race, the Fetterman campaign initiated Phase Three of its plan to define Oz: convincing voters “he will hurt you.”
In practice, that meant tying Oz to the most unpopular parts of the Republican agenda by association.
“He will ban abortion, raise taxes on working people, put Medicare and Social Security up for a vote every five years like [Florida Sen.] Rick Scott’s plan wanted,” McPhillips said.
“We walked away with bags of cash and a huge asset by Oz taking the wrong position on abortion, which was the No. 2 issue for voters [after the economy] in every poll we’ve done this cycle.”
Oz strenuously denied that he would cut Social Security and Medicare in his debate with Fetterman.
But in the same debate, Oz also declined to endorse a minimum-wage increase or the bipartisan gun control legislation that passed Congress with the support of Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.).
Oz’s comments on abortion were the most damaging, however. Pressed to outline his position on South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham’s proposed national ban on abortions after 15 weeks, Oz declined to answer. Then he delivered the gift of the night for Fetterman.
Explaining why he wanted abortion policy left up to the states, Oz declared, “I want women, doctors, local political leaders” deciding when women are allowed to get abortions.
The Fetterman campaign immediately turned the video clip of Oz’s remarks into a TV ad and raised $2 million to air it on TV, including during Major League Baseball’s World Series games that began a few days later. The Philadelphia Phillies were competing for the championship, making it essential to tap into those games’ high viewership.
“If you’re looking at who actually walked away from the debate with something to take home, it was us,” McPhillips said. “We walked away with bags of cash and a huge asset by Oz taking the wrong position on abortion, which was the No. 2 issue for voters [after the economy] in every poll we’ve done this cycle.”
Republican operatives working to elect Oz nonetheless saw the debate as a key pivot point in Oz’s favor.
Carl Forti, political director of American Crossroads, told HuffPost that prior to the debate, they had made significant progress driving up Fetterman’s unfavorable numbers, but found Oz still polling slightly behind Fetterman.
Recognizing that swing voters had not necessarily watched the debate and thus may have missed seeing Fetterman’s struggle to communicate in a fast-paced environment, they made sure to remind voters in ads of some of Fetterman’s toughest moments during the debate.
“It had reached a plateau,” Forti said. “And that changed following the debate.”
Jiu-Jitsuing The Stroke Fallout
Notwithstanding Oz’s glaring weaknesses as a candidate, Fetterman faced two major challenges over the course of his campaign. The first was the nearly fatal stroke he suffered in May.
The stroke dampened the mood among campaign staff at the tail end of the primary election and created communication barriers due to Fetterman’s auditory processing issues. He would not be able to address reporters in a gaggle after his events like other candidates and would need closed captioning for the handful of sit-down interviews he did conduct.
But the campaign’s polling and focus groups found an electorate that was relatively patient and willing to believe Fetterman was on the mend. Many focus group participants knew someone who had suffered a stroke, or had even survived one themselves.
Those focus group participants who expressed the greatest concern about Fetterman’s health tended to have the most conservative views or Republican voting histories, McGrath, the pollster, found.
By contrast, the independent voters who were up for grabs were repelled by the Oz campaign’s mockery of Fetterman’s condition, including the suggestion that if Fetterman had ever eaten vegetables, he would have survived the stroke.
“It turns out that cruelty is not necessarily a winning strategy, especially if you’re not Donald Trump,” McGrath said.
Fetterman’s denunciations of the Oz campaign’s harsh comments became a staple of his stump speech. He would ask the crowd at his rallies to raise their hands if they had ever experienced a serious medical event and then ask if a doctor had ever mocked their condition.
“Unfortunately, I have a doctor in my life making fun of me and saying all of those things,” he said at a late September rally in Philadelphia. “But if we don’t do what we have to do and step up, you’re going to have that doctor in your life for the next six years.”
Fetterman also used the stroke to make the case that he was an authentic messenger for universal health care and for working families who want more time with their loved ones.
“The best political relationship he has is with Bob Casey.”
In the mid-October TV ad, he described how lucky he felt to get more time to spend with his wife, Gisele Barreto Fetterman, and their three kids.
“We’ve got to make it easier for people to spend time with those they love,” he said.
To showcase Fetterman’s improving health, the campaign began having Fetterman participate, with the aid of closed captioning, in informal discussions in front of a crowd. Those who conducted these public interviews with Fetterman included Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon (D-Pa.) and Sens. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Bob Casey of Pennsylvania.
Incidentally, Casey became a confidant for Fetterman, a shy person who has trouble forming relationships with fellow politicians when those relationships do not feel authentic.
“The best political relationship he has is with Bob Casey,” Calvello said. “They just genuinely like each other.”
Fetterman’s staffers acknowledge that the period of haggling with Oz over the location and timing of a debate was a difficult period for the campaign that elicited negative scrutiny in the press.
But they insist they were merely trying to find a TV network that could accommodate their request for real-time, closed-captioning technology.
Likewise, the campaign says it wanted to release an updated note from Fetterman’s physician earlier than a few weeks before the election. But it took so long, they claim, because of the reluctance of medical institutions like University of Pittsburgh Medical Center to permit anything that might suggest their physicians are involved in politics in any way.
In general, Fetterman’s campaign believes news outlets and other Democratic politicians were far more concerned about Fetterman’s fitness to serve in the Senate than voters or grassroots donors ever were.
Prior to the 24-hour period after the debate, the campaign’s single biggest fundraising day was after Fetterman’s on-camera interview with NBC News’ Dasha Burns. Burns’ revelation that it was unclear whether Fetterman had been able to understand their small talk before the close-captioned interview began prompted howls of fury from the Fetterman campaign — and a rush of support from grassroots Democratic donors across the country.
The campaign also faults top Pennsylvania Democrats who disparaged Fetterman in the press in the days following the debate with Oz. To wit, American Crossroads used negative press coverage of the debate in TV ads.
“Thank you, Ed Rendell,” said Katz sarcastically, referring to the former Democratic Pennsylvania governor’s public pronouncement that Fetterman should not have debated.
Overcoming The Crime Deluge
The second and far more significant challenge for Fetterman was a barrage of TV advertising attacks from Oz and Republican super PACs that tried to paint Fetterman as a far-left “radical” more concerned about freeing criminals than protecting the public.
For this task, Oz and the Senate Leadership Fund, the super PAC aligned with McConnell, had material from which to draw — though they often took it out of context.
As chair of the board of pardons, Fetterman had in fact pushed for a greater number of pardons and commuted sentences, clashing at times with Attorney General Josh Shapiro (D), a more moderate member of the board who is now Pennsylvania’s governor-elect. In public discussions, Fetterman made clear that he opposed the state’s law mandating life sentences without parole for “felony murder,” a less severe charge brought against someone convicted of involvement in an act that resulted in someone’s murder.
That meant there was a clip of Fetterman on camera calling for “eliminating the felony murder law.” Without explaining what Fetterman meant, the Senate Leadership Fund replayed the excerpt twice in a 30-second TV spot in September.
American Crossroads ran a TV ad explicitly encouraging voters casting their ballots for Democratic gubernatorial nominee Shapiro to split their tickets with a vote for Oz because of Fetterman’s record at the board of pardons.
Noting the numerous times that Fetterman voted for a pardon to proceed and Shapiro did not, the ad declared that Fetterman is “way more radical than Shapiro.”
But Fetterman’s team immediately pushed back with ads featuring Fetterman speaking directly to the camera about his success reducing crime in Braddock, where, for a five-year period while he was mayor, there were no murders in the town. In the ads, Fetterman and his validators always made sure to paint Oz as an insincere out-of-towner whose public safety bona fides were deeply suspect.
“Dr. Oz is not the most authentic messenger on crime.”
“Doc Oz in his Gucci loafers is attacking me on crime,” Fetterman says in one ad. “Dr. Oz wouldn’t last two hours here in Braddock.”
Fetterman also enlisted the help of Montgomery County Sheriff Sean Kilkenny, who attested to Fetterman’s credentials as a crime fighter — and countered the effect of Bucks County Sheriff Frederick Harran’s appearance in pro-Oz ads.
Fetterman’s team nonetheless grew frustrated that in late August and September, the Senate Leadership Fund was putting more money behind its attacks on Fetterman than its Democratic counterpart, the Senate Majority PAC, was putting into the race. For much of that period, the Senate Leadership Fund often spent upward of $1 million more per week than Senate Majority PAC did.
Those frustrations came to the surface in a memo that McPhillips wrote to big donors, sounding the alarm that they were getting outspent. “In the last three weeks alone, Republicans have spent nearly $12 million dollars — significantly outspending us and out-communicating on the airwaves,” he wrote in a memo published by Politico. “We cannot allow this to continue unabated.”
By October, the cavalry was coming in for Fetterman. And in the end, voters who said “crime” was their most important issue went with Fetterman over Oz, 51% to 49%, according to a CNN exit poll.
“Dr. Oz is not the most authentic messenger on crime,” McDonald said. “The guy wears $25,000 suits.”
Oz’s most effective message, according to Fetterman’s team, was his last-minute push to sell himself as a moderate who would bring “balance” to Washington.
Whether it was that talking point, Fetterman’s debate performance, or the cumulative effect of the crime attacks, Oz narrowly surpassed Fetterman for the first time in the Fetterman campaign’s final poll of the race — about a week before Election Day.
But Oz undercut his closing message by appearing on stage alongside far-right gubernatorial candidate Doug Mastriano at a rally convened by Trump the Saturday night before the election.
Fetterman, by contrast, finished strong, campaigning with Biden and former President Barack Obama. He also picked up the endorsement of Oprah Winfrey, Oz’s former patron, which his team quickly advertised online and on radio. Senate Majority PAC advertised it on TV.
The endorsement was also a topic of conversation during Fetterman’s interview on “The View” the Friday before the election.
“There’s no doubt that we won the last five days of the campaign,” Calvello said. “Maybe that’s what tipped us over.”
Kevin Robillard contributed reporting.