It’s been clear throughout the 2022 midterms cycle that Republicans must hold Pennsylvania’s open Senate seat if they hope to gain control of the chamber this year and that they wouldn’t concede it without a fight. But not very long ago, the contest was a font of comedic entertainment for many Democrats in and beyond the Keystone State who felt the feckless campaign of Dr. Mehmet Oz was turning out to be a big joke.
Early in the summer, Oz’s extremely recent New Jersey residency provided fodder for a merciless, meme-filled social-media campaign by Democratic nominee John Fetterman. Then Oz’s clumsy effort to show solidarity with middle-class shoppers via a video about the rising cost of crudités sparked howls of derision online. The candidate only compounded his problems when he couldn’t seem to give a straight answer about how many houses he owns.
Well, Democrats aren’t laughing about Oz any more. While polls showed Fetterman cruising toward a relatively easy victory during much of the summer, the race has definitely tightened. The RealClearPolitics average of polls shows the state lieutenant governor up only 4.3 percent and Oz within the statistical margin of error in two recent polls. It’s still Fetterman’s race to lose, but now it’s clear he could. The influential Cook Political Report just moved its rating of the race from “Lean Democrat” to “Toss Up.”
Why has the laugh track following Oz on the campaign trail faded? For one thing, his campaign has succeeded in focusing persuadable voters on Fetterman’s problems rather than his own. The Republican’s campaign has not hesitated to make Fetterman’s preprimary stroke a campaign issue mostly via debate challenges the Democrat was slow to accept (the two campaigns finally agreed to a single debate October 25). Indeed, Oz has all but made Fetterman’s poor health a character issue, which is risky but very much on brand for the man who used to gently chide millions of TV viewers for their poor eating and exercise habits.
But the tightening of the race can probably be attributed to the same national issues Republicans are running on elsewhere, particularly crime, where they think Fetterman has a vulnerable record. And indeed, Fetterman’s championship of some clemency actions on the state’s Board of Pardons (which he chairs as lieutenant) has provided some juicy fodder for attacks. More generally, the Oz campaign has sought to label the Democrat as a soft-on-crime extremist eager to decriminalize drugs and empty the prisons:
National Republicans have also been pouring a lot of money into the race, keeping Oz competitive despite the money he had to spend to win his primary (Fetterman won his in a walk). And as one might expect in a highly polarized midterm cycle with a lot on the line, Republican voters seem to be returning to the fold. A symbol of that consolidation has been an Oz endorsement by former governor Tom Ridge, a Republican who backed Joe Biden against Donald Trump in 2020. Another possible partisan dynamic helping Oz is the comparatively hapless campaign of his ticket mate, gubernatorial nominee Doug Mastriano. Most Pennsylvania Republicans have left his candidacy for dead and are concentrating on helping Oz win the Senate for the GOP.
In the end, the Pennsylvania Senate race is close enough that impressions made in the debate — and the last-minute ads fed by those images — could resolve the race. But early voting has already begun (technically, in Pennsylvania, in-person early voting means requesting and filling out a mail ballot in person), so Team Fetterman hopes it can bank enough votes to overcome any late momentum for Oz. Election night is likely to be white-knuckle time for Pennsylvania Democrats and no laughing matter.
More on the Midterms
- New Midterms Data Reveals Good News for Democrats in 2024
- The Return of the Emerging Democratic Majority?
- Trump May Be a Repeat ‘Loser,’ But He’s Good at GOP Primaries