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In the Pa. Senate race, will it matter that Dr. Oz is a carpetbagger?

Do voters care whether a candidate is really from the state they aim to represent?

Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, the Democratic candidate for Senate, greets supporters at a campaign stop May 10 in Greensburg, Pa. (Keith Srakocic/AP)

In a the heated U.S. Senate race in Pennsylvania, Lt. Gov. John Fetterman has used humor to discredit the campaign of Mehmet Oz, the Republican candidate, by calling out the fact that Oz is a newcomer to the state, a carpetbagger who moved there merely to run for office. Will these attacks work? History can help us answer that question. After all, Oz is not the first person to relocate to run for office. Hillary Clinton moved to New York to run for the Senate in 2000, and Mitt Romney won his Senate race in Utah after serving as governor of Massachusetts and running for president in 2012.

But carpetbagger candidates often struggle to establish themselves in their new states. They lack the ingrained, long-term knowledge that comes from living full-time in a state for years, leaving them open to charges that they are running to serve their own ambition, not the residents of their new state. Every candidate for office is ambitious, of course, but carpetbagging foregrounds ambition in a way that’s tough to ignore and provides easy fodder for opponents.

The key dynamic to understand is that not all carpetbaggers are created equal. Success — or at least viability — has long hinged on whether a carpetbagger brings with them the credibility to counter critiques about running in a new state. Candidates such as Clinton and Romney were able to convince voters that they were in a new state to continue their long careers in public service.

The term carpetbagger dates to the period of Reconstruction after the Civil War. Southern newspaper editors developed the term to refer to Northerners who came south after the war seeking fortune and eventually ran for office there. The term quickly took hold outside the South to refer to anyone who came to a new state specifically to run for office there and persisted into the 20th century.

When Robert Kennedy ran for the U.S. Senate in New York in 1964, he and his opponent, Sen. Kenneth Keating (R-N.Y.), debated about which candidate would better lead the nation in policy areas such as housing, labor and civil rights. Kennedy’s status as a newcomer to the state was the subject of criticism from his opponent, but not of ridicule. Initially, Kennedy talked up (and exaggerated) his family’s ties to the state and his brief residence there when he was a child. When that proved unpersuasive, he argued that his recent experience as attorney general in his brother’s presidential administration would give him a head start in addressing the issues of the day. And he emphasized to New York’s Democratic electorate that he would be one more vote for President Lyndon B. Johnson’s agenda in the Senate, while Keating spent the campaign ducking the question of whether he would vote for conservative outsider and 1964 Republican presidential nominee Sen. Barry Goldwater (R-Ariz.).

The situation was quite different more than two decades later in New Hampshire. In 1986, desperate Democrats convinced Endicott “Chub” Peabody, who had retired to the Granite State after his single two-year term as governor of Massachusetts, to be their candidate against Sen. Warren Rudman, a Republican. The Democrats had no illusions that Peabody — who had not held office in decades — could defeat Rudman. But New Hampshire Democrats wanted to prevent the nomination from being captured by Robert Patton, a supporter of Lyndon LaRouche, the prominent conspiracy theorist and occasional presidential candidate. Losing with a quirky but mainstream nominee like Peabody would be unfortunate; losing with an extremist like Patton, whose positions were out of step with the party, would be devastating.

To the extent that Rudman's campaign engaged with Peabody at all, it capitalized on Peabody’s outsider status. One campaign ad featured a Peabody look-alike, who gave a rambling monologue in which he confused New Hampshire for both Maine and Vermont. The Rudman campaign also handed out buttons urging voters to “Scrub Taxachussets Chub,” linking his out-of-state origins to Granite Staters' legendary aversion to taxes. In response, Peabody tried to argue that he was more in touch with New Hampshire voters' opinions than Rudman, but this response never connected with the state's voters and Rudman easily won reelection.

These trends have continued into the 21st century as successful candidates have played to their public service strengths. For example, in 2000, New York Republicans were incredulous that first lady Hillary Clinton was running for Senate in their state. But the months she spent on a listening tour of small towns and cities throughout the state made her a familiar part of the political landscape by the time the campaign began in earnest. She also capitalized on New York City’s role as a cultural and financial capital, where people came for fresh starts and reinventions.

Four years later, Illinois Republicans recruited Alan Keyes, the frequent Republican presidential primary candidate, from Maryland to run against Barack Obama for their state’s U.S. Senate seat. Obama had such a comfortable lead that he did not make much of Keyes’s carpetbagger status, but Keyes still made a spectacle of himself with his ignorance of the state. One newspaper editorial compared Keyes’s answering the Illinois GOP’s call to Mighty Mouse flying to someone’s rescue, while the Chicago Tribune suggested that Keyes learn how to pronounce Cairo, Ill., properly.

The Fetterman campaign is building on this history by hammering home Oz’s carpetbagger status and experience in entertainment, not public service. Oz has very high levels of name recognition, thanks to his years hosting his daily talk show. But Fetterman’s campaign has worked to turn that into a liability, not an asset, by arguing that Oz’s wealth and fame make it impossible for him to relate to or represent ordinary Pennsylvanians.

For example, Fetterman — and his social media team — went after Oz for shopping for “crudite” (a term perhaps more familiar to wealthier people) rather than a “veggie tray” (as most Pennsylvanians would describe it) in a campaign video that went viral last month. Oz also drew fire for mashing up two grocery store names, Wegman’s and Redner’s, to claim that he bought the food at “Wegner’s.” Fetterman’s campaign sent “Wegner’s Crudite” stickers to online donors. Supporters joined the pile-on with their own tweets about veggie trays available at Sheetz, the Altoona-based chain of gas stations and convenience stores, and by showing up at Democratic campaign events dressed as broccoli, one of the vegetables from Oz’s video.

Underneath these and countless other jokes was a theme that’s been threaded throughout Fetterman’s campaign against Oz: the idea that Oz is incapable of representing Pennsylvania because Oz does not understand Pennsylvania or the people who live there. To this end, Fetterman is aided by Pennsylvania’s own history and political culture, which stands in contrast to the cosmopolitanism of New York, where carpetbaggers such as Kennedy and Clinton were successfully elected to the U.S. Senate. Pennsylvania has a much more fractured political culture, that ranges from Philadelphia and its tony suburbs to the rustier Pittsburgh to the small towns and cities scattered through the rest of the state in what some call “Pennsyltucky.”

All of this makes Fetterman’s attacks on Oz potent, and social media gives Fetterman’s campaign and his supporters the opportunity to amplify and build on these attacks. To the extent that these efforts keep Pennsylvania voters thinking about Oz as a wealthy celebrity trying to win an election for reasons of ego and ambition, they could help Democrats win an important race in a key state. The danger for Democrats is that this sort of campaign may not do much to build the party for 2024 and beyond. But if they elect Fetterman, Pennsylvania’s Democrats will be happy crossing that bridge when they come to it.

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