Lt. Gov. John Fetterman (D) and Dr. Mehmet Oz (R) are set to debate Tuesday evening as they jockey for an open Senate seat in the pivotal swing state of Pennsylvania, with their much-anticipated televised slugfest poised to decide the balance of power on Capitol Hill.
The impact of congressional debates in midterm elections is typically overblown. But Democrats and Republicans agree Oz versus Fetterman in the state’s capital city of Harrisburg, beginning at 8 p.m. EST, two weeks to the minute before the polls close on Election Day, is a major exception to that political rule. Fetterman is still recovering from a stroke suffered in May, and Oz is a recent New Jersey transplant without a long history in Republican politics.
That leaves voters plenty to assess this evening in the only debate both contenders to succeed retiring Sen. Pat Toomey (R-PA) agreed to, although Oz sought more and Fetterman refused or made demands his Republican challenger found unacceptable. Their faceoff could be the decisive moment in this neck-and-neck campaign, one that not only determines partisan control of this seat but which party holds the Senate majority in the 118th Congress.
“New polling suggests it’s still within reach. Fetterman needs to speak to the undecided voters who tune in — more policy specifics,” said T.J. Rooney, a former chairman of the Pennsylvania Democratic Party. “Oz may have peaked a bit based upon rural Republicans I’ve talked to.”
“Everyone is in Harrisburg for the debate,” he added.
Fetterman narrowly led Oz in the RealClearPolitics average of recent polls, 47.3% to 46%. Oz, a renowned surgeon and famous television personality who for years hosted his own nationally syndicated show, has been steadily gaining since Labor Day as doubts about Fetterman’s health mount and the political environment moves back into Republican wave territory. But Oz has more work to do, even as skyrocketing inflation and rising crime push independents and swing voters toward the GOP.
“It’s more significant than the usual Senate debate. It’s the only opportunity for voters to see Dr. Oz and John Fetterman up close and personal, side by side, unscripted, and unvarnished,” said Charlie Gerow, a veteran Republican operative who lost his bid for Pennsylvania governor in the May 17 GOP primary.
“Coming at a time when there are a lot of unanswered questions about John Fetterman, it will be especially important for those who are still undecided,” he added.
President Joe Biden’s job approval ratings are low, and voters, particularly crucial swing voters and independents, are most concerned about skyrocketing inflation, rising crime, and, in some instances, border security — and polls show they trust Republicans more on those issues. That has made the GOP a virtual lock to win a majority in the House, where the Democratic advantage is a threadbare handful of seats.
The battle for the Senate is more unpredictable, despite a favorable Republican environment and signs a red electoral wave is building that could sweep Democrats from power in Washington and across the country. Republicans need to flip just one Democratic-held seat to capture control of a chamber split 50-50 and run by the Democrats courtesy of Vice President Kamala Harris’s tiebreaking vote.
Enter the Pennsylvania Senate race. The contest is the Democratic Party’s best opportunity to swipe a GOP-held seat and complicate Republican efforts to win the Senate majority.
Fetterman, 53, is an acolyte of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT). But the hoodie-and-cargo-shorts-wearing Democrat is likable — and in the past has been a dynamic politician who has endeared himself to many Pennsylvania voters who might not be as far to the Left as he is on some issues. Perhaps his biggest challenge now, beyond Biden and issues like inflation and crime that have Democrats on the defensive, is his health.
Fetterman has maintained a light campaign schedule that minimizes direct interactions with voters and reporters. He communicates using a close-captioning device that flashes what others are saying onto a screen. This has put a spotlight on his health and raised questions about his ability to serve in the Senate, not to mention whether the lieutenant governor has been transparent about his physical and cognitive abilities.
Meanwhile, Oz, who won the GOP primary thanks in part to an endorsement from former President Donald Trump, has labored since then to consolidate the support of his party and shed the carpetbagger label. The first-time candidate has said all the right things on issues that matter to the Republican base, campaigning as a fiscal conservative and China hawk who is anti-abortion and wholly opposed to Biden’s agenda.
But some of these positions contradict comments the Republican made for years as a doctor and television host before entering politics. That has cast a cloud over Oz’s authenticity and, like Fetterman, upped the stakes for this evening’s debate in Harrisburg.
“Debates rarely change minds,” said Jeff Brauer, a political science professor at Keystone College, near Scranton, Pennsylvania. “However, in this case, this single debate very well could make or break the race.”
“It will put on full display the biggest X factor in the race — the health and readiness of the apparent front-runner, John Fetterman. Fetterman needs to show that he is physically up for the task of being a U.S. senator,” Brauer added. “Oz needs to take this opportunity to shed his image as a carpetbagger and as a Hollywood elite.”
Like the recent Senate debate in Georgia between Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-GA) and Republican challenger Herschel Walker, the duel in Pennsylvania is being broadcast nationally by NewsNation, the upstart cable news network that bills itself as facts-oriented and nonpartisan.