NEWTOWN, Pa. — John Fetterman, the state lieutenant governor, has won Pennsylvania’s high-voltage race for an open Senate seat, defeating celebrity TV doctor Mehmet Oz, bringing an end to one of the nastiest and most expensive campaigns of the year as both parties treated it as a potential tipping point for control of the chamber.
Fetterman will succeed Sen. Pat Toomey, a Republican who opted against seeking re-election. Just after 2 a.m. E.T., Fetterman led by more than 2 percentage points with about 93% of expected votes being reported.
“It’s official. I will be the next U.S. Senator from Pennsylvania,” Fetterman tweeted. “We bet on the people of Pennsylvania — and you didn’t let us down. And I won’t let you down. Thank you.”
Speaking for roughly seven minutes at his election night event in Pittsburgh, Fetterman said: “This race is for the future of every community all across Pennsylvania. For every small town or person that ever felt left behind.”
At his party in Bucks County, Oz spoke briefly just before midnight, expressing confidence that he would emerge victorious.
“When all the ballots are counted, we believe we will win this race,” he said. “We’ve been closing the gap all night, and we have a lot more ballots to go.”
“I have told you many many times that I believe in you,” Oz added. “Traveled all over the Commonwealth to make that message clear. Tonight, you have told me that you believe in me. Bless you for that.”
Fetterman, known for his bald head, tattoos, hulking frame and casual wardrobe (hoodies over suits), had emerged in recent years as a progressive icon — though he and his advisers preferred the word “populist.” As a former mayor of the small Pittsburgh-area borough of Braddock and later as lieutenant governor, he championed marriage equality, legal marijuana and second chances for criminals, including those serving the state’s mandatory sentence for second-degree murder. Part of his campaign platform, which he pressed in the closing days of the race, was to vote to eliminate the Senate filibuster or 60-vote threshold for most legislation.
But just days before he won the May primary, Fetterman suffered a stroke, limiting his ability to campaign for months. Meanwhile, Oz’s Republican allies spent tens of millions of dollars in an attempt to brand Fetterman as soft on crime.
The barrage helped Oz climb back into a race that Fetterman had led all summer — by double digits, according to at least two polls. Fetterman, whose speech and auditory processing were affected by his stroke, agreed to only one debate, on Oct. 25. His struggles were apparent, stoking alarm the next day among Democrats who worried the performance would scare away voters.
But Fetterman was able to overcome both obstacles.
Oz entered the race with a much higher national profile from his days hosting a syndicated daytime talk show that Oprah Winfrey (who late in the race endorsed Fetterman) helped launch. But the celebrity persona he cultivated, the medical advice he dispensed and the products he featured on the program all would haunt him as a first-time candidate for office. Critics blasted him for promoting dubious therapies. An early column on the dangers of fracking at times tripped him up in a state where drilling for natural gas is seen as an economic lifeline. And Republicans weren’t always sure they could trust the man who danced with then-first lady Michelle Obama on his show.
After tacking hard to the right in a primary he won narrowly — and only after a state-mandated recount — Oz made efforts to pivot back to the center. He said he would not have objected to Pennsylvania’s 2020 election results and danced around attempts to pin him down on abortion. At the debate, Oz refused to offer a “yes” or “no” answer when asked if he supported a federal 15-week ban on abortion, instead talking more broadly about his desire to allow such decisions to be made by the woman, her doctor and “local political leaders.” Democrats seized on the response as a sign that Oz believes that the government should be involved in personal health choices.
Oz was also dogged by skepticism over his ties to Pennsylvania — after attending the University of Pennsylvania in the 1980s, Oz only moved back to the state in alignment with his Senate bid. No moment best captured his struggles with authenticity then a video from the primary that resurfaced over the summer that featured Oz in a Redner’s Market shopping for food in hopes of demonstrating the impact of rising prices.
“My wife wants some vegetables for crudité,” Oz said, picking out broccoli, asparagus, carrots, guacamole and salsa for the platter of raw vegetables and dips. “Guys, that’s $20 for crudité, and that doesn’t include the tequila. I mean, that’s outrageous. And we’ve got Joe Biden to thank for this.”
Not only did the reference to crudité fall flat with listeners who were unfamiliar with the term, but Oz’s pronunciation of the name of grocery chain as “Wegners” also quickly trended on Twitter.
Oz attributed the flub to exhaustion.
An NBC News exit poll found Pennsylvanias were more concerned with Oz’s limited history in the state than they were about Fetterman’s health.
Asked if Oz lived in the state long enough to properly represent it, 56% of voters said in the exit poll that he had not, while 42% said he had. For Fetterman, 50% said he was healthy enough to represent the state while 47% said he was not.
Allan Smith reported from Newtown, Penn. and Henry J. Gomez from Columbus, Ohio.