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The Upside-Down World of the Pennsylvania Senate Race

Salena Zito on

ERIE, Pennsylvania -- If you are looking for conventional wisdom metrics that D.C. reporters and strategists use to outline what is going on in the race for the U.S. Senate in Pennsylvania, the short and the long answer is there are none.

The Democratic nominee, Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, with whom no one outside his tightly held inner circle has had a back-and-forth conversation since his stroke and subsequent surgery in May, is spending his time and money snark-posting about his opponent's roots in New Jersey, even resurrecting the career of Snooki ("Jersey Shore") for ads and tweets about Oz and New Jersey.

His opponent, Republican nominee Dr. Mehmet Oz, is spending his time far below the radar. Nowhere now are the endless ads that were the hallmark of his primary campaign this spring. That volley of attacks between him and rival David McCormick, which drove his approval ratings into the ground, has given way to the unglamorous but essential work of driving across the state, county by county, listening to voters' concerns.

In the May Democratic primary, Fetterman easily defeated Conor Lamb and Malcolm Kenyatta. He won because of the years he had spent building a relationship with Democratic voters in cities like this one. Add in his reputation for transparency, delivered with an economic populist message, and his appeal was pitch-perfect for the liberal Democratic voters who show up in primaries.

Fetterman's lack of public interaction with anyone -- regular people or reporters -- outside of short videos or posts on Twitter has raised concerns among voters who supported him. Although blue-check Twitter loves his snark and rewards him daily with retweets and stories about how clever his tactics are, voters say they hope he will pivot to issues sooner rather than later.

Keystone College professor Jeff Brauer said Fetterman's use of stunts to drive a story are pretty common in campaigns. "Good, bad, and ugly gimmicks have always been part of American politics," he said, adding that oftentimes these types of tactics are successful.

 

Brauer added that once fall arrives, he expects Fetterman to become more serious. "It will be much more telling then if Fetterman isn't willing/able to make that shift," he said.

Fetterman has always been most successful when he is meeting people where they are. Before his stroke, it would have been hard to imagine him not being out on the trail at county fairs, parish festivals and stock car races, just randomly showing up in towns, cities or suburbs and pressing the flesh. But for now, that is all apparently off the table.

In short, Fetterman's ground game has always been Fetterman himself, not some volunteer, not some DSCC transplant, not some surrogate. Just him, listening, asking and interacting, and the word of mouth that spreads that liberal gospel.

The question is, will tweet-storming be enough to replace his greatest asset: himself?

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