just asking questions

Why Is the Fetterman-Oz Race So Freaking Close?

Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer. Photos: Getty Images

In 2016 and 2020, Pennsylvania was perhaps the country’s most contested swing state, and this year is no different. In a bitter Senate campaign, Democrat John Fetterman, whose health has become a central issue, is trying to fend off Dr. Mehmet Oz, whose once-hapless campaign has shown late momentum. Democrats are trying to cling to three congressional seats that could all easily go red. And in the governor’s race, Attorney General Josh Shapiro is up against Doug Mastriano, one of 2022’s most extreme Republican candidates (which is saying something) in a race that will have major implications for 2024. With tens of millions in ad dollars flowing and big guns like Barack Obama descending on the state, I spoke with Jonathan Tamari, a national political correspondent for the Philadelphia Inquirer, about what’s on the line this Tuesday.

Polls show that Dr. Oz and Fetterman are neck and neck going into the home stretch of this campaign, with Oz having made up quite a bit of ground over the last few weeks. Do you sense that either one of them has a distinct advantage with five days to go?
No, it feels like a true toss-up, like a jump ball that could totally go either way. And this is really where I think most people expected it to be in the end. Pennsylvania has had really close Senate elections historically, except maybe ones involving Bob Casey, who’s a unique case because of his family’s legacy in the state. The sitting Republican, Pat Toomey, won both of his elections by one to two percentage points, and that’s kind of how these things go here.

Fetterman did have a substantial lead for a few months as he relentlessly attacked Oz for being an out-of-stater, among other things. Does that just speak more to Oz’s inability at the beginning to win over the voters he needed, or Fetterman’s unique strength?
I think that was a reflection of a really brutal Republican primary, where there were three candidates who drew significant levels of support from Republicans. And remember: Oz was hammered throughout that primary for not being a true conservative, because he has said a lot of things in the past that were moderate on issues like abortion and guns and fracking. So there were a lot of Republicans who were just skeptical of him from the start. He won somewhere around a third of the vote in the Republican primaries. Two out of every three Republicans voted for somebody else, let alone independents and Democrats. It took him a long time to consolidate support, both to get conservatives to believe that he was one of them, and to try to turn some people against Fetterman, who had established a long-standing brand in Pennsylvania.

Have people warmed to Oz, or is it more like they realized they’ll pull the lever for the Republican no matter what?
I think the campaign has done a good job of getting Republicans to vote for him, but not necessarily because they love Oz. His negative ratings in polls are still terrible. But what they’ve done is launched all these attacks on Fetterman over crime. Some people say that’s to get suburban swing voters who are concerned about crime spilling from Philadelphia into the suburbs. But other folks say this was a way to make Fetterman unacceptable to conservative voters by painting Fetterman as a guy who they’d hate, who would release criminals back into the state. And I think they’ve done an effective job of that. The question is, have they won over enough swing voters as well? And I just don’t know the answer to that.

I do wonder if David McCormick, the hedge-funder who Oz beat in the primary, would’ve been doing better against Fetterman right now.
There’s speculation about both McCormick and, on the Democratic side, Conor Lamb. Lamb is a moderate, which is the typical Pennsylvania Democratic model, right? You think Joe Biden, you think Bob Casey, Governor Tom Wolf — those are the types of folks who win. But it’s tough to say, because McCormick and Lamb both would’ve been hit with six months of negative advertising that could have caused a lot of problems for them as well. Remember, McCormick had said a lot of kind things about China in the past and was a high-level figure in the Bush administration, which is not really popular with either party these days. I’m not sure if he would’ve done much better than Oz. Lamb’s a tougher call because he has actually had a lot of opposition research dumped on his head already, in previous congressional races, and survived that. But he couldn’t lay a finger on Fetterman — he clearly didn’t generate as much support. So I think either of those guys would’ve had different problems. Given Pennsylvania and given the national environment, I think almost any race was going to be close.

Right, we probably would’ve ended up where we are now regardless. The campaigns are meaningless. 
Just start at 48-48, and have a two-week election.

Wouldn’t that be better for everyone? 
Except the TV networks.

Last week’s Fetterman-Oz debate was viewed as hugely important because of the state of Fetterman’s stroke recovery. He gave a halting, hard-to-watch performance, and a lot of people were saying how terrible it was for him — and I include myself in that. But it did seem like pundits were a little too certain of their insta-reactions. I’m wondering if you thought people overestimated the importance of that debate and Fetterman’s performance in it. 
We’ve only seen one full poll that was done completely after the debate, and it shows basically no movement. Based on that, you’d have to say the answer is, Yes, people did overestimate the importance of the debate. And it might just be that we overestimate the importance of debates overall, that people like you and me who follow politics treat these things like they’re playoff games and regular people don’t. I remember covering the early Democratic presidential debate when Kamala Harris hammered Joe Biden over busing and everybody was like, “Well, that’s the end of Joe Biden.” So I think this is maybe the latest evidence that regular people aren’t paying that much attention. Partisanship is just baked in, so people who were inclined to like Fetterman seem to still give him the benefit of the doubt, and people who were already inclined to dislike him saw it as disqualifying. In our defense, I think the feeling was not that some huge swath of votes would suddenly shift, but that it was already basically a tie, and if one side had a really bad night, suddenly that could maybe move a few votes.

Democrats have focused a lot of their midterm messaging around the country on abortion rights since Roe was overturned. I think in some blue states, voters may not feel all that much urgency because the abortion laws there are unlikely to be overturned anytime soon. But in Pennsylvania, the governor’s race really does seem like a referendum on the issue, since the state is otherwise controlled by Republicans, and Doug Mastriano is so extreme. How much do you think the issue has helped Josh Shapiro, and do you think that kind of urgency on abortion rights could help Fetterman and other Democratic candidates too?
I think it is a big factor in Pennsylvania for the reasons you just laid out. There could be a dramatic swing in the laws of the state based on who wins the governor’s office. It is a direct, straight-line consequence of the outcome of this race. So I do think it might be more of a prominent issue or motivator for Democratic voters in Pennsylvania than it might be in some other states. And I think that in general, people are hoping that Shapiro, if he wins big, will carry a lot of other folks down ballot. I would add, though, that Shapiro has also done a lot to talk about economic issues, because even he realizes that that is still the No. 1 topic in Pennsylvania despite all the stakes for abortion and for voting rights as well.

He’s leading comfortably in polls, and is widely credited with running a smart campaign, but his job is also a lot easier because Republicans nominated Mastriano. It’s hard to disentangle those two things.
Mastriano has barely run any television ads until a few weeks ago, raised very little money, and has taken extreme positions in a very moderate state. A lot of Republicans are like, “Shapiro’s getting a free pass.” But, look, you have to give credit to Shapiro, too. He still has to do the work. He still has to show up and make it a blowout, which it appears to be. But yeah, Republicans said during the primary that Mastriano would be disastrous for them. But they couldn’t stop him, and it appears their fears came true. It’s the same way they couldn’t stop Donald Trump, but the difference is that Trump managed to actually go out and surprise people and win.

Speaking of worst fears, there’s a state law in Pennsylvania that prevents mail-in ballots from being counted until Election Day. Republicans who control the state legislature won’t change that rule. Do you have any sense of when we might actually get results if the Senate race, for instance, is extremely close and Democrats worried about the sort of premature claims of victory? Let’s say Oz is up and there’s mail- in ballots still to be counted, which will skew Democratic, similar to what happened in 2020. Are people worried about that scenario?
The rule is they can’t start counting until on Election Day. They can start that morning, but it’s a huge number and it delays the final results. I think there’s a little more confidence that we might get some results, if not Tuesday night, sometime Wednesday, because there probably won’t be as much mail voting this time as there was in 2020. I know as journalists, we’re certainly preparing for the idea that somebody tries to declare victory, but I feel like there’s a better chance of someone like Trump saying “Oz won” than Oz himself.

Because remember, Oz went through a lengthy, lengthy recount in a Republican primary. And he was ahead at that point, and his opponent, McCormick, was trying to catch up through the mail-ballot process and through the provisional ballots being counted. And Oz let that process play out. He didn’t claim victory; he went through the whole process until McCormick conceded. So there’s some precedent of him kind of doing that. I do think, though, that you have to watch Trump or some of his allies on the outside saying, “We won Pennsylvania and they’re trying to steal it.”

It also could be that Mastriano declares victory after losing by 20 points, but that would be more comical than anything, I suppose. 
Exactly. And we’ll also see how the House races turn out. If Republicans really win some of those, it becomes a little harder for them to claim fraud. Although that was the case in 2020 — they won a bunch of House races then too, and still claim fraud in the presidential race.

Well, consistency isn’t the name of their game. But in any case, could Republicans sweep the competitive House districts in the state this year?
There are three that are really considered competitive. One of the most interesting is the district that’s based in Scranton. That’s Joe Biden’s hometown, and the kind of place that has been historically Democratic but has trended Republican over many years. So that’s a place Republicans think they could make a gain, and there would be some symbolism in winning the district. Matt Cartwright, the incumbent, is one of those Democrats who has a brand that’s strong enough to withstand that. How long can he hold out? In the Lehigh Valley, Susan Wild from Allentown is the incumbent Democrat, and again, that’s a classic swing district. And then out in the Pittsburgh suburbs, it’s kind of the opposite of the Scranton area, where you have suburbs that have trended left. That’s where Conor Lamb was before he ran for Senate, so it’s an open seat. If there’s a GOP wave, there’s a chance Republicans do win all of three of those seats. But everything we’ve seen is that they’re really close, and like the Senate race, they could break either way. And I think Democrats are hoping that Shapiro’s effort at the top of the ticket helps them hang on.

There’s another really important issue at stake, which is that whoever wins the governor’s race will be in charge of the state’s election administration in 2024.
It’s one of the biggest consequences, along with abortion rights and voting rights. In Pennsylvania, the governor appoints the secretary of State, and we saw in 2020 that Trump and Republicans targeted Pennsylvania very specifically. It was one of the two states that saw a formal debate and vote on January 6. I was there for it. The debate on Pennsylvania happened after the riot had finished, after the windows were broken and they cleared out all the rioters. So the idea that the state could be targeted again in 2024 is very plausible. It’s front of mind for a lot of people, both people in politics and people like me who cover politics. The difference between having Doug Mastriano, who actively denies the election results and paid for buses to go to the Capitol that day, or Josh Shapiro, who as the attorney general in 2020 helped resist some of the Trump legal maneuvers, is huge. Pennsylvania could again decide the 2024 presidential election, and this governor’s race is going to decide if you have an election denier overseeing that or not.

Pretty low stakes overall.
Yeah, you know, ordinary stuff.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Why Is the Fetterman-Oz Race So Freaking Close?