The Pennsylvania primary is the latest stage for celebrity politics, with Republican Dr. Mehmet Oz and Democrat John Fetterman leading as frontrunners in their parties’ senatorial races.
WASHINGTON – When Donald Trump talks about why Dr. Mehmet Oz should be a United States senator, he cites Oz’s medical background, his conservative views – and, above all, something else.
“His show is great,” Trump told supporters at a May 6 rally in Pennsylvania, site of a Tuesday primary that showcases a powerful development of 20th and 21st Century public life: celebrity politics.
The former president’s comments echoed what he said when he first endorsed Oz in early April as “brilliant and well-known”: “He has lived with us through the screen and has always been popular, respected and smart.”
Dr. Oz is only the latest celebrity to try and turn fame into a political career, a list that ranges from old-time radio hosts to movie and television stars, such as Ronald Reagan in the 1980s.
But in the age of former reality-television President Donald Trump, the question of celebrity as a political qualification — and what that means for governance and even democracy — has taken on added meaning.
Not that Oz is a lock. Far from it. He is in the midst of a tight Republican senatorial primary race with opponents who are engaged in the time-honored tactic of using a celebrity’s fame against him, in this case arguing that being the host of a television talk show does not qualify one to be a United States senator.
The Republican victor will face a challenging fall election contest with the winner of Tuesday’s Democratic primary, another race featuring a celebrity factor.
Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, a U.S. Senate candidate who is leading Democratic polls headed into the primary, became a statewide political celebrity by running as an outsider throughout his career. He doesn’t vie for party endorsements. He bucks campaign traditions by opting for shorts over suits. He aided his political rise with frequent television interviews in 2020 attacking Trump’s attempts to steal the election in Pennsylvania and other states.
Rescue dogs and social media followers
He also has something the other U.S. primary candidates do not – more than 200,000 individual donors, and a spouse and rescue dogs with more than 175,000 social media followers. That’s in addition to his own social media presence with more than 600,000 followers.
Even though the Fettermans never describe themselves as celebrities and, John Fetterman told USA TODAY, he prefers to think of himself as chronically 5 points behind, he is leading in every poll by double digits. In the most recent poll, Fetterman was leading U.S. Rep. Conor Lamb by almost 40 points in the Democratic race for U.S. Senate.
Fetterman and Oz would not be frontrunners in their parties without their fame, according to Mike Mikus, a veteran Democratic strategist in Pennsylvania who is supporting Lamb.
“I’m not saying that in a nasty way,” he said. “Long before Fetterman ran for Senate he was very good at promoting himself, even getting national press when he was the mayor of Braddock. And if Oz was not a TV celebrity, he wouldn’t get the Trump endorsement.”
The Pennsylvania primary is the latest stage for celebrity politics, a long-running phenomenon that involves “a shift in our political and our cultural values,” said Kathryn Cramer Brownell, an associate professor of history at Purdue University and author of “Showbiz Politics: Hollywood in American Political Life,”
“This is part of a more open political landscape,” Brownell said. “It’s more media driven and it’s more performative.”
Brownell said celebrity politics has its positive aspects — “celebrities have used their fame to draw attention to issues and raise money for causes” — but also its negative aspects.
In part, she said, it “allows politicians to bypass critical questions from the press.”
Problems with celebrities carry over if they are actually elected, she said.
“Trump’s celebrity status helped him win the election, but his obsession with his own ratings undermined his ability to actually govern,” Brownell said.
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Dr. Oz’s new show
Most of the national attention is on Oz, the surgeon who parlayed his many appearances on Oprah Winfrey’s groundbreaking talk show into a program of his own. Now he is vying for the Senate as a political outsider, a frequent role for celebrity candidates.
Oz’s opponents, including businessman David McCormick and conservative commentator Kathy Barnette, have mimicked candidates of the past by casting Oz as a celebrity carpetbagger who knows nothing about Pennsylvania.
“He’s been liberal, a Hollywood liberal, for his entire career,” said McCormick, once the owner of the world’s largest hedge fund, speaking on Fox News.
Barnette, a frequent commentator on Fox News, said during a candidate forum in March that Oz “pretended to be a liberal while working beside Oprah and Michelle Obama.”
In discussing his endorsement of Oz, Trump often says he believes the doctor is the Republicans’ best bet to win a general election – largely because he was a television star.
“You know, when you’re in television for 18 years, that’s like a poll, that means people like you,” Trump said of Oz during a rally in North Carolina on April 9.
Oz himself has approached the campaign the way previous celebrities have, as a fresh voice to try and reform a corrupted system.
Noting that recent Republican presidents Ronald Reagan and Donald Trump had Hollywood roots, Oz said in one video ad: “Like me, they were conservative outsiders who fought the establishment.”
Oz believes his celebrity is “helpful to his campaign because he has always used that platform to empower individuals,” said campaign communications director Brittany Yanick. “He is proud of his career.”
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‘People look at celebrities differently’
Over the years, the success of some celebrity candidates has reflected general distrust of more traditional politicians, researchers said. Others have had their celebrity status work against them.
“People look at celebrities differently than they do other candidates,” said Mark Harvey, the author of “Celebrity Influence: Politics, Persuasion, and Issue-Based Advocacy,” and director of the MBA program at the University of Saint Mary in Kansas.
In some cases, Harvey said, voters see familiar celebrities as “more credible than politicians.”
Mikus puts it this way: “Voters don’t like a phony.”
Celebrity candidates, perhaps because of their experience connecting with audiences, typically have a better chance connecting with voters, he said.
Oz has managed his Pennsylvania campaign stops like episodes of his TV show, recreating the format of the show and creating television-like sets. Fetterman has campaigned in all of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties, including stops in bars and bingo halls in the reddest counties.
In the authenticity factor, Mikus thinks the Democrat has the edge.
“Fetterman comes across as the real deal. What you see is what you get. Oz has been all over the map on issues,” he said.
On air and on the trail
First-time candidates who made their names in other endeavors have another advantage over run-of-the-mill politicians, said Harvey and others: high name recognition, something hard for many candidates to obtain.
Another advantage, analysts said: Celebrities also tend to have big money or at least the ability to raise big money from their fans.
There are also drawbacks to being a celebrity candidate.
In addition to a lack of political experience, celebrities have said and done a lot of things that can be made to look bad in the heat of a campaign.
In the Oz case, McCormick and other opponents have dredged up a litany of televised Oz comments portraying him as favoring abortion rights, opposing gun rights, backing President Obama’s health care plan and saying nice things about China, all anathema to Trump Republican doctrine.
Those are among the reasons that Trump’s endorsement of Oz drew criticism from many conservatives. Some people booed Oz when he took the stage at this month’s Trump rally.
As with so many before him, fame has been “a blessing and a curse” for Oz, said Berwood A. Yost, director of the Floyd Institute for Public Policy and the Center for Opinion Research at Franklin & Marshall College.
“He’s of course well known, but he has a record of taking positions on air that make some voters doubt his conservative credentials,” Yost said. “He’s not particularly well-liked among the Republican faithful.”
The Fettermans: ‘You get all of us’
With his 6-foot-8-inch stature, Fetterman is used to standing out and getting endless media attention as the “tattooed mayor” with a goatee and gym shorts, but he cringes at the thought of being a celebrity.
“I couldn’t be further from that,” he said in an interview with USA TODAY. “I’m just a regular guy. I’m a guy who can’t even get his kids to clean their rooms.”
His wife, Gisele Fetterman, also shies away from being called a celebrity, as she does at the thought of John being a celebrity or getting more attention for his appearance.
“We’re just parents of three kids who want the world to be better for them and everyone else,” she said.
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But for all the downplaying of their statewide celebrity status, analysts say Pennsylvania’s second couple do have a big influence in the state.
“They’re a new version of a power couple,” said Chris Borick, a pollster and political analyst at Muhlenberg College in Allentown. “They have a synergy about them. They have similar views, but how they frame them is quite different in style but ultimately complementary. She has helped his campaign tremendously.”
The Fettermans know she is an asset. His supporters frequently wear shirts that say to “vote for Gisele’s husband.”
“She’s everyone’s favorite, from my parents all the way down to every room we’re in,” John Fetterman said.
“I think you just get a package with us,” Gisele Fetterman said. “You get all of us.”
That includes their three children and two rescue dogs, she said.
John Fetterman has campaigned on the idea that he doesn’t look like a typical politician and, more importantly, he doesn’t act like one.
Democratic strategist J.J. Abbott, former press secretary to Gov. Tom Wolf, said that’s an advantage.
“He has built strong support with a lot of Democrats, but he also has some unconventional pockets of support he’s built around marijuana, elections and the board of pardons,” he said. “When I talk to people who aren’t engaged around politics, they like Fetterman because he is different. He has a brand that he’s not your typical politician and seems more approachable.”
‘Pass The Biscuits, Pappy’
In many ways, celebrity politics has been around as long as American politics.
Famous people often vied for political office in previous centuries, particularly military heroes like Andrew Jackson and Ulysses S. Grant.
During the 20th century, celebrity politics evolved in connection to the rise of mass media, especially radio and motion pictures.
In the 1930s, W. Lee “Pappy” O’Daniel, a Texas flour company executive and the founder of a swing band, became famous with a music radio show that opened with a mountain tune that included the catch phrase “please pass the biscuits, Pappy.”
Going into politics, O’Daniel won election in 1938 as governor of Texas. In 1941, he won a special election to the U.S. Senate over a field that included congressman and future president Lyndon Johnson.
LBJ biographer Robert Caro wrote that reporters first treated O’Daniel’s gubernatorial campaign “as a joke.” Voters, however, took it very seriously and overwhelmingly elected O’Daniel. “For years he’s been talking to us on the radio,” a farmer said during the 1938 campaign.
California, the home of Hollywood, has launched many a celebrity political career. Actress Helen Gahagan Douglas won election to the U.S. House in 1944. She tried for the U.S. Senate in 1950 but lost the general election to a more traditional politician, the red-baiting Republican Richard Nixon.
Over the past six decades, as television became increasingly powerful in politics, more former actors ascended the political ladder, especially in California: George Murphy became U.S. senator; Ronald Reagan became governor and then president; and Arnold Schwarzenegger won a recall race in 2003 to become governor.
The sports world has also produced its share of political aspirants. Before Oz, Pennsylvania’s most notable celebrity candidate was probably Lynn Swann, the former Pittsburgh Steelers star and football broadcaster whom the Republicans nomination for governor in 2006. Swann lost the fall election to incumbent Democrat Ed Rendell.
Celebrities have run and won up and down the ballot, from Carmel-by-the-Sea, Calif., Mayor Clint Eastwood to U.S. Rep. Sonny Bono to U.S. Sen. Al Franken.
This year, the former football star Herschel Walker – and a former contestant on Trump’s “Celebrity Apprentice” – is running for a Senate seat in Georgia.
Trump’s Electoral College win in the 2016 presidential election was in many ways the ultimate triumph of celebrity politics. Trump frequently alluded to the advantages of his celebrity status, such as the infamous “Hollywood Access” tape in which he talks about moving in on women.
“When you’re a star, they let you do it,” Trump said. “You can do anything.”
The 2022 Pennsylvania race
Whether Trump’s celebrity can help Oz use his celebrity to win a Senate seat remains to be seen.
Oz is having trouble with the Republican nomination, despite Trump’s endorsement, as polls show a too-close-to-call race among Oz, McCormick and Barnette, who has zoomed into contention since Trump’s endorsement and the conservative criticism it engendered.
The fall is also expected to be tough; Pennsylvania remains a battleground, and the state could decide whether Republicans or Democrats win a majority of the U.S. Senate overall.
The U.S. Senate campaign in Pennsylvania is expected to be one of the most expensive on record and possibly one of the most vicious, as both parties vie for a seat that could swing the power of Congress.
Though celebrity candidates have a name-recognition advantage in the primary, they also have more exposure in the general election.
“There’s no doubt that celebrity has opened a door for Oz and Fetterman here,” Borick said. “It doesn’t come without cost once you’re in the door.”
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