After a rough few weeks of headlines about his health and tightening poll numbers, the John Fetterman campaign would like to have some fun again.
The Pennsylvania lieutenant governor and Democratic candidate for US Senate on Wednesday launched a new website, Fettermemes.com, that opens to the public a small library of multimedia featuring his Republican opponent, Mehmet Oz, with the express hope that people will create new memes.
“We have a base of supporters that are enthusiastic and engaged online and off, but I think especially online like no one in politics has ever seen before,” campaign spokesperson Emilia Rowland told BuzzFeed News. “And so the point of the Fettermemes is to give those kinds of supporters the tools that they need to get in on the fun.”
The website features old videos of Oz saying he lives in New Jersey and promoting weight loss myths, but also more bizarre things that Oz had previously posted to social media, including a video of him falling asleep while eating watermelon and plunging into a pool, as well as a video of him dancing in his kitchen to Junior Senior’s “Move Your Feet.”
One video, “Dr. Oz Jammin’,” is a clip of the TV doctor from his former show putting on headphones and blissing out, which is practically inviting users to add their own music.
In that spirit, users are invited to send their creations to Fetterman campaign staff, who plan to blast the best ones out.
“You’ve got to find the fun in [politics] and find a way to reach people that isn’t too doom and gloom and that gives them some hope and gives them some fun to have along the way,” Rowland said.
A spokesperson for the Oz campaign did not respond to a request for comment.
The meme strategy recalls one Sen. Mitch McConnell adopted in 2014 — albeit inadvertently and about himself — when he released a two-minute video of himself working silently and smiling awkwardly for cameras. The B-roll footage, which was shared by the senator so that Super PACs could use it in ads without the senator illegally coordinating with them, quickly became the subject of so-called #McConnelling memes.
Former president Donald Trump has also been known to reshare memes or posts from his supporters on social media, some of which have been racist, antisemitic, or manipulated, or featured QAnon messaging.
The Fettermemes website, in contrast, is part of an unusually lighthearted digital strategy from the Fetterman campaign, which spent the summer mercilessly trolling Oz with memes that mocked, for example, his use of the word crudité.
Since then, polls have tightened amid a relentless advertising blitz by Oz that seeks to tie Fetterman to inflation and casts him as a “radical” who is soft on crime.
The latest polls show Fetterman up less than 4 points on average, down from a high of almost 9 in the summer. Earlier this month, the nonpartisan Cook Political Report shifted the race back from “Lean Democrat” to “Toss Up” status.
“I always thought the race would narrow as we got towards November,” Dan Mallinson, assistant professor of public policy and administration at Penn State Harrisburg, told BuzzFeed News. “I think Republicans who are not that excited about Oz will probably still come home. Partisanship is powerful.”
Mallinson said he believes there will be more scrutiny on Fetterman’s performance than Oz’s at their upcoming Oct. 25 debate given the recent attention on the health of the Democrat, who has been recovering from a near-fatal stroke in May.
Fetterman will require a live transcription service during the debate to assist with ongoing auditory processing issues that he is experiencing during his recovery — something that was on display during a controversial on-camera interview last week. That NBC News sit-down drew the ire of advocates for people with permanent or temporary disabilities because of what they criticized as too much focus on the accommodation Fetterman required. Gisele Fetterman, the candidate’s wife, also called on NBC to apologize for the "ableist" reporting.
Republicans have seized on Fetterman’s health and verbal stumbles to question whether he is fit to serve, while Oz himself mocked the Democrat’s months at home in recovery with a so-called basement tracker.
“I think the Oz campaign didn’t help themselves by being flat-out mean with Fetterman over the summer, and the comments about how he should have eaten vegetables continue to circulate as people criticize the media and Oz’s characterization of Fetterman’s recovery,” Mallinson said.
Fetterman has tried to frame his recovery as something relatable, releasing a spot last week that called for making it easier to access healthcare and spending “more time with those we love,” as he had been able to do as he recovered.
In June, Fetterman released a letter from his cardiologist, who stated that if the candidate took his recovery seriously, he would be able to campaign and serve without problems. However, the campaign has not released further information since then or made his doctors available for interview.
Campaign representatives have said that his doctors expect his “lingering auditory processing issue” will eventually subside. This week, the Washington Post also spoke with four neurologists, who told the newspaper that the candidate appeared to be recovering well.
While Fetterman will likely be under more scrutiny at the Oct. 25 debate, Mallinson said the pressure also remains for Oz.
“It’s too much to expect one debate to carry that load, but I think both candidates really need a decent performance,” Mallinson said. “What that means looks different for each though. Oz on substance, Fetterman on not getting frustrated with his limitations and allowing them to be part of his performance.”