PHILADELPHIA (CN) — When Dr. Mehmet Oz announced his run for an open U.S. Senate seat in Pennsylvania last November, part of his appeal to voters was that he, like former President Donald Trump, came to them straight from their TV screens.
The celebrity doctor’s name recognition alone proved a promising notion for the Republican ticket alongside some of Oz's other Trumpian similarities. A rich television personality with no political experience. Someone who has vowed to fix the political system as an outsider.
Less than a month out from the Nov. 8 midterm election, however, Oz is trailing 46-40 behind the Democrats' nominee, Pennsylvania’s Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman.
Like Oz, Fetterman has taken on the “outsider” image on the campaign trail. But while Oz barely squeaked through the primaries, Fetterman coasted with an overwhelming majority. At 6-foot-8, Fetterman doesn't strike the typical political image with his tattoos and campaign trail uniform of basketball shorts and hooded sweatshirts.
The former Braddock, Pennsylvania, mayor appeared this week in what was billed as his first on-camera, one-on-one interview since he had a stroke in May. While campaign aides say the stroke did not damage their candidate's cognitive abilities, Fetterman relied on a captioning system in the interview to compensate for changes to his auditory processing and speech patterns — common side effects of a stroke.
Fetterman may have lost the double-digit polling lead that he set in the summer, but his numbers remain stronger than those of his celebrity opponent.
“He really should be running away with this because he has terrific name recognition,” Alison Dagnes, a professor of political science at Shippensburg University, said of Oz. "And Fetterman had a stroke and was off the campaign trail for four months."
In a race where majority control of the Senate is on the table, eyes across the nation are on this open seat race taking place in a state that flipped from Trump in 2016 to Biden in 2020, and will serve as an indicator of the political tides of parties and candidates heading into 2024.
Dagnes points to bad branding, a lack of transparency and authenticity as the reason why Oz must punch up against Fetterman.
In contrast to Trump, who brashly adapted his “you’re fired” personality from “The Apprentice,” Oz’s TV personality hasn’t translated well to politics.
“A kindly doctor is not supposed to yell at you and have mean things to say,” Dagnes explained in an interview. “That sort of image doesn't necessarily work.
“If you craft a persona, and then your political persona is exactly opposite of that, and it's really not what the public wants,” Dagnes continued. “He has tried to be the sort of authentic guy, which doesn't work, because he's not a real person.”
Oz instead tried to dodge the elephant in the room: his association with the Democrat-endorsing Oprah Winfrey, who featured the doctor on her show at least 60 times.
“If in the first ad he had run, he’s in a pair of incredibly expensive alligator shoes getting out of a Lamborghini, and he takes his incredibly expensive sunglasses off of his highly sculpted face, looks straight at the camera and says, ‘I'm Mehmet Oz. I'm rich. Oprah loves me. And I want to be your senator.’ I think Pennsylvanians would have fallen over themselves to vote for him,” Dagnes diagnosed. “Because that's all we really knew about Mehmet Oz.”
What voters don't know, Dagnes continued, is why the doctor-turned-celebrity with no policy experience wants to be Pennsylvania’s senator. On top of that, there is little pushback from Oz to the mud being slung by Fetterman's campaign — many of which centered around Oz’s wealth and his primary residence being in New Jersey until just before he announced his run, when he changed it to his in-laws’ Pennsylvania address.