Do real voters care about crudités? We asked political strategists about the viral video’s impact on Mehmet Oz’s campaign.
It’s been a tough week for Mehmet Oz’s Senate campaign.
It’s been a tough week for Mehmet Oz’s Senate campaign. And not just because of the crudité video seen ’round the world.
A poll released Wednesday showed him down 20 points to Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, and there were reports that the National Republican Senatorial Committee, which funds Senate races around the country, pulled some of its TV reservations from key states, including Pennsylvania. (However, a spokesperson for the NRSC said the group will continue to spend in the state.)
But nothing sucked up the campaign oxygen like the video, which was taken in April but recirculated this week and then was trolled, meme-ified, and used to spark a Fetterman fund-raising blitz.
In the video, Oz mispronounces the name of the Lehigh Valley grocery-store chain Redner’s as “Wegner’s,” and then explains he’s assembling a crudité spread of raw broccoli, asparagus, carrots, guacamole, and salsa. It hits Oz on one of his biggest weaknesses — his struggles relating to everyday Pennsylvanians. And it was resurrected during a campaign summer Fetterman spent trolling Oz on social media.
“It’s August, and it’s slow, and in the absence of any real substantive policy debate going on, this becomes a sticky moment,” said Mustafa Rashed, a Democratic political consultant.
On the long runway to November, though, this might turn out to just be a late-summer viral sensation, strategists from both parties said. In other words, the jumbo carrot sticks might not stick.
Not Dukakis in a tank?
Republican strategists say they are neither panicking nor thinking the video is a defining “Michael Dukakis in a tank” moment.
“I think there are bigger issues than a veggie tray,” said GOP strategist Chris Nicholas, who doubts the video resonates beyond people already inclined to support Fetterman.
“[Fetterman’s] contributors are the type of people that would respond to that,” he said. “I remind people that Twitter’s not real life. It is much more important to the Democratic firmament than it is to the Republican firmament.”
Nicholas thinks it’s another example of Fetterman coasting in a campaign that has largely been fought with attacks on social media. He thinks a more pertinent issue is whether Fetterman, who just returned to the trail Friday after a May 13 stroke, will debate Oz and what that matchup would look like.
“Democrats have long said that Republicans have not been serious, a la Trump,” Nicholas said. “If the whole world turns on ‘What is the correct word for a veggie tray?’ I lay this right back at their feet.”
Ashley Klingensmith, a senior adviser with Americans for Prosperity Action, a PAC that supports Republican candidates, said the video hasn’t come up as the group has canvassed around the state in the last week, speaking with a lot of undecided voters.
“Since the resurrection of the video, we have knocked just over 7,000 doors, and we have not had a single comment about the video on a doorstep,” she said. “What we continue to hear is about the cost of living and specifically about gas prices, grocery prices, and supply-chain issues — those are the top three things people want to talk about.”
Fetterman campaign raises $500,000 over video
Fetterman’s campaign quickly seized on the recirculated video, mocking it with tweets from Fetterman and the sale of a sticker “Wegners: Let them Eat Crudite.” Fetterman’s campaign ended up bringing in close to $65,000 in sticker sales and $500,000 in the 24 hours after the video went viral. The campaign also used the moment to release Fetterman’s plan to fight inflation.
“Our supporters — and everyone, really, from a look at the past few days — love to dunk on Dr. Oz,” said Brendan McPhillips, Fetterman’s Senate campaign manager.
“Our campaign isn’t self-funded by a multimillionaire celebrity doctor, it’s funded by hundreds of thousands of grassroots donors,” McPhillips said. “John actually understands what it’s like to go grocery-shopping and to see prices go up. Oz clearly has never been in a grocery store before. That’s why this is resonating with supporters across Pennsylvania.”
Democratic strategist J.J. Balaban said raising $500,000 in a day isn’t nothing. It can pay for a solid week of TV in the Pittsburgh, Scranton, Erie, and Harrisburg media markets combined.
He said the video was memorable “because it fed into the broader narrative of the case against Oz as a candidate. It hit the trifecta of showing Oz not having genuine knowledge of Pennsylvania (’Wegner’s’), being an out-of-touch rich guy (’crudité’), and being phony (his affect in the video). Voters are likelier to connect with that more than some dry debate over, say, aid to Ukraine.”
And even if it largely galvanized Democrats, Balaban noted they’re a base Fetterman needs to stay motivated.
“To the extent this dust-up helped with that, it’s helpful to the Fetterman campaign with 82 days to go,” he said.
Oz was hit with attacks during the primary about being a “carpetbagger” from New Jersey.
”Right now it is a joke and a meme ... but within the guffaws, Fetterman is beginning to define Oz as the ‘out of touch’ guy who is from out of state,” said Larry Ceisler, a Democratic public affairs consultant.
“And if that case keeps building against Oz without any type of credible rebuttal, it makes the task of him clawing out of the hole [GOP primary opponent David] McCormick created for him even more difficult.”
The Wednesday poll that found 51% of voters said they support Fetterman and 33% support Oz was conducted by Public Opinion Strategies for Pittsburgh Works Together, an alliance of unions and businesses. It surveyed 600 registered voters and had a margin of error of plus or minus 4%.
Republicans look forward to debate stage
The video has drawn more attention in the media cycle than Oz’s own aggressive campaign schedule. Oz has attended more than 130 events in the last month, visits that have often flown under the radar, in part because media aren’t always invited.
“Stuff like that keeps John Fetterman out of the media,” Westmoreland GOP chair Bill Bretz said of the crudité video. Bretz had not seen the video but was vaguely aware of “something about an appetizer tray” being shared on a friend’s Facebook page.
“For John Fetterman and his base, that’s probably great because it stays with his narrative, but for people in Westmoreland County, they’re not impressed by that. They’re still looking at the issues, not parlor tricks and tweets.”
Bretz thinks the real showdown that will matter will be on a debate stage, not Twitter. Oz has challenged Fetterman to five debates. The Fetterman campaign has not said how many or which debates it will participate in.
“Look, we all hope for his continued recovery, but unfortunately, it’s not 1932. You can’t hide FDR’s wheelchair today,” Bretz said. “So if he’s not dramatically recovered, that’s going to be a concern, and I think that’s why Dr. Oz is reaching out to have a debate. He wants to have him out in public, not hiding on Twitter.”