Fetterman attacks on Oz for being from N.J. resonate in parochial Pa.
PHILADELPHIA — There’s something about Pennsylvania’s political DNA that’s playing out in this year’s crucial Senate race.
It’s not that we have one unifying statewide identity, but we are a state with lots of intense regional identities — that can oftentimes breed distrust of out-of-towners.
People don’t say they’re from Pennsylvania. They say Pittsburgh or Philly; NEPA or the Lehigh Valley; western Pa. or Johnstown; the Philly burbs or Delco. The dividing lines aren’t along our state borders but east vs. west, Wawa vs. Sheetz, city vs. rural, Steelers Nation vs. “Go Birds” and Philly vs. Everybody.
And it’s amid this brand of parochialism that Mehmet Oz has struggled to quiet an onslaught of attacks about his Pennsylvania ties. Oz, a celebrity doctor who moved here from New Jersey to run for the seat, was likely always going to face challenges appealing to everyday Pennsylvanians, campaign strategists, former politicians and political scientists say, but something about Pennsylvania’s ethos seems to be making it even harder.
“Every single thing about our state promotes local identity,” said Ben Forstate, a Democratic political analyst from western Pennsylvania, more specifically, Allegheny County, more specifically Pittsburgh, and more specifically the North Hills neighborhood.
The state is carved up into tiny townships, municipalities and school districts, all with unique tax laws and individual character.
“You vote for everything, you expect your politicians to be accessible,” Forstate said. “We like people from our own regions. We’re suspicious of people from other regions. We don’t like outsiders. ... Pennsylvania doesn’t have a positive personal identity, but we definitely have a negative one, and that’s where Dr. Oz is provoking some sort of weird immune response.”
Pennsylvania doesn’t have one state fair but dozens of county-based ones. We list the home counties of candidates right there on the ballot next to their name — and those hometowns have ended up swaying elections. And while every state has some degree of hometown pride, perhaps most notably, Pennsylvania ranks fourth in states with the most residents who were born where they live.
That hyper-regionalism could be why the carpetbagging attacks against Oz resonate. In social media posts, banner planes, billboards and via New Jersey celebrities, Lt. Gov. John Fetterman has relentlessly shouted the same message at voters: Oz isn’t from here.
At the same time, Fetterman’s branded himself as a Pennsylvania everyman, dressed in shorts and a hoodie, whose latest campaign ad proclaimed he has “Pennsylvania in his blood.”
Pennsylvania is not New York: Oz, who grew up in Delaware and went to medical and business school at the University of Pennsylvania, has started crisscrossing the state to campaign. But he’s struggled to shake the “outsider” label.
In a late July poll, 37% of voters said they were extremely concerned Oz “may not be familiar enough with the state of Pennsylvania to carry out the job of senator effectively.” An additional 34% were somewhat or very concerned.
“Pennsylvania is Dr. Oz’s home,” campaign spokesperson Brittany Yanick said. “He grew up in the Greater Philadelphia region, went to school in Pennsylvania, met his wife and got married in Pennsylvania, and currently resides in Bryn Athyn, where his wife’s family has lived for a hundred years.”
Former Gov. Ed Rendell, who was born in the Riverdale section of the Bronx but now lives in the East Falls section of Philadelphia, recalled running for reelection in the late 1990s and being blasted for not being from the state.
“I’d lived here for 30 years,” he said.
He thinks any candidate moving into Pennsylvania might encounter similar issues.
“I think because we’re located between New York and Washington, it builds up a little bit of an inferiority complex, which breeds parochialism,” Rendell said. “We don’t like to be used, no matter who it is. We wouldn’t like to be used by Hillary [Clinton] or Bobby [Kennedy] or Mehmet Oz.” (Clinton and Kennedy both famously relocated to New York to run for Senate seats there.)
New York, by contrast, is a state where people are constantly moving in and out.
“If you’re in a place with a lot of cosmopolitan transplants, then being a cosmopolitan transplant doesn’t matter so much,” said Robin Kolodny, a political science professor at Temple University. “That’s not this state.”
Kolodny also noted Pennsylvania’s population is older than in other Rust Belt states, which may lead people to be more entrenched where they live. And in Fetterman, born and raised in York and a longtime resident of Braddock, she said, Oz has to compete with someone “who wakes up looking like he’s from Pennsylvania.”
Rendell also thinks Philadelphia’s own complex contributes to a feeling of unjustified inferiority that can inspire an “us”-vs.-“them” mentality.
“We don’t think of ourselves as a significant state, when in fact if [Philadelphia] was located in, say, Kentucky and we had done all the things to contribute to the birth of the country, we’d be like Chicago. We’d be considered the dominant city in the region,” Rendell said.
Oz isn’t moving from just anywhere — he came over from New Jersey: One thing that might unite Pennsylvanians? Trolling our neighbor to the east.
Matt Beynon, a GOP campaign strategist, who is from Chinchilla, a six-block area between Scranton and Clarks Summit, said the Oz-New Jersey attacks gave him flashbacks to a 2018 congressional race.
In that contest, U.S. Rep. Matt Cartwright went after GOP opponent John Chrin for having moved from New Jersey before the race.
“Every ad was ‘Jersey John Chrin,’ ” Beynon said. “And I felt bad for Chrin, because his family actually has really, really strong ties here.”
But the attacks were effective, Beynon said, and might speak to a commonality.
”Half of your readers might not like this, but … dislike of the state of New Jersey kinda unites Republicans and Democrats across Pennsylvania,” he said.
Kolodny agreed. She thinks Pennsylvania’s familiarity (sometimes rivalry) with New Jersey might make it easier to poke fun at. After all, you don’t laugh at a joke you don’t understand.
“I do think the fact that it’s New Jersey is key,” Kolodny said. “If the guy had moved from Cincinnati to Pittsburgh, do you think it would be the same?”
While Oz trails Fetterman in polling, he did win the primary, albeit narrowly, against Pennsylvanians with stronger ties to the state. Jeff Bartos, a Montgomery County developer who is now co-chair of Oz’s campaign, ran against him and attacked him for being a “carpetbagger.”
”Voters didn’t care about that,” he said. “Time after time, when I talked about my deep roots and lifelong residency, voters came back to me to talk about inflation, crime, quality-of-life issues, national security.”
‘Make sure you’re seen’: Beynon doesn’t think Oz is getting a particularly fair shake, given how Oz’s wife has deep family roots in Montgomery County, but he does think Oz has the right strategy in aggressively hitting the campaign trail.
“If you’re getting branded as an outsider in Pennsylvania, ingratiate yourself, make sure you’re seen,” he said. “You have to be part of the community.”
Just don’t gaffe while doing it, suggested Paul Maslin, a longtime campaign strategist, who lives in Los Angeles but spent ages 5 to 11 in Lemoyne, a town across the river from Harrisburg.
Maslin can still recite the answer Pete Dawkins gave to reporters when he was asked if he understood the interests of New Jerseyans, having only recently moved there. It was 1988, and Dawkins was running against Democratic Sen. Frank Lautenberg in the New Jersey Senate race.
Maslin said Dawkins replied that of all the people he’d met all over the world, nowhere had he and his wife found people “as kind and decent as right here in our Garden State.”
“This is the home of 'The Sopranos,' ” Maslin said, noting that no one in New Jersey calls it “our Garden State.”
It’s a version of don’t wear Gucci loafers to the Iowa state fair or order Swiss on your cheesesteak.
And in Pennsylvania, it’s good to know the state’s history as well. Because one unifying theme is pride in how we shaped the country.
“You go to Gettysburg, that little town, that battlefield, is everything to Adams County,” Beynon said. “Pittsburgh, I think, rightly views itself as the city that built America. … Bethlehem, Scranton, these areas look back to the Industrial Revolution, and there’s a lot of pride.”
The state’s political stock also feeds a sense of importance, which might lead to more scrutiny of candidates. Other than increasingly red Florida, Pennsylvania has the most electoral votes up for grabs of the swing states. The state Legislature is Republican-controlled but narrowly split, as are the U.S. House and Senate delegations. Nearly every election season, Pennsylvania voters get courted with expensive, high-stakes campaigns.
Pennsylvania may have some hyper-regional pride, but it’s also home to rapidly changing big- and medium-size cities, said Kolodny, of Temple. That could change how voters respond to political transplants.
“But I think for the time being ... there is something to be said for the connection that Pennsylvanians have with their state,” she said.
“It’s a little bit different from other places.”