2022 midterms

John Fetterman Beats Dr. Oz and a Stroke, Flipping Pennsylvania for Democrats

Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photo: Getty Images

John Fetterman narrowly defeated Republican TV celebrity Dr. Mehmet Oz to be Pennsylvania’s new junior senator, giving Democrats a crucial takeover of a Republican-held seat and a good chance of maintaining control of the upper chamber after a hard-fought campaign in which the Democratic lieutenant governor lost and found both his health and momentum. Fetterman won by big margins in Pittsburgh and in the Philadelphia area. (Late returns and a slow count in Philly, exacerbated by Republican legislation and lawsuits, will only pad his victory.)

It was a long, strange campaign. The Pennsylvania Senate seat opened up back in 2020 when two-term incumbent Republican Pat Toomey announced his retirement from politics. At first, the still-developing Republican field to succeed him was galvanized when Donald Trump made an early endorsement of Sean Parnell, turning him into the front-runner. But Parnell was quickly accused of domestic violence and lost a high-profile child-custody suit, leading him to drop out of the GOP primary.

Around that time, word got out that an unlikely new candidate — Oz, the cardiothoracic surgeon turned Oprah Winfrey–endorsed TV doctor — was considering a run for the Senate seat despite having no background in politics and a tenuous connection to Pennsylvania. Soon, another rich carpetbagger, Manhattan hedge-fund titan David McCormick, moved back to his native Pennsylvania and jumped into the race. Meanwhile, Democrats mulled a clear choice between well-regarded moderate congressman Conor Lamb and the state’s lieutenant governor, a Bernie Sanders–supporting, tattooed, cargo-shorts-fancying populist. Fetterman quickly gained a big lead over Lamb that he never lost, and after a bitter primary campaign, Oz defeated McCormick by an eyelash.

Then came the event that transformed the race and nearly killed Fetterman: a stroke, right before he won the May primary. As he recovered, Fetterman largely stayed out of the public eye, but his campaign hammered Oz relentlessly, mocking his wealth and his longtime New Jersey residency. Oz added to Fetterman’s advantage with his own missteps — particularly an unintentionally hilarious video in which he decried the high price of crudités — while he struggled to overcome misgivings about him from many Republicans.

Oz finally hit his stride in the fall with a twofold strategy. First, he drew attention to Fetterman’s stroke and concerns that the Democrat might not be fit to serve by repeatedly challenging him to debates. Second, and more conventionally, Oz attacked Fetterman for his alleged weakness on crime, mostly via Willie Horton–esque smears of his service as chairman of the state’s pardon board.

As the race tightened, Fetterman agreed to a single debate on October 25. The Democrat, who was suffering from post-stroke aphasia that affected his auditory processing and requested closed-caption display of debate questions, struggled visibly, but Oz arguably hurt himself by taking a bullying posture and making a gaffe about abortion decisions being handled, in part, by politicians. Polls showed an extremely close race with both national parties heavily engaged (Fetterman benefited from personal campaigning by Pennsylvania native Joe Biden and Barack Obama, while Trump held a rally for Oz).

In the end, negative impressions made by Oz and his party outweighed doubts about Fetterman, who represents a party that now controls the governorship and both Senate seats in this battleground state. And it’s another winnable statewide race where Republicans can thank Donald J. Trump for a candidate who fell short.

Fetterman Beats Oz, Flips Pennsylvania for Democrats