HARRISBURG, Pa. — Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. John Fetterman and Mehmet Oz met Tuesday night for the only debate of what’s become perhaps the most important Senate race in the country this year — one that could determine partisan control of the chamber.
Recent independent polling has shown a tight race between Fetterman, the Democratic nominee, and Oz, a Republican doctor best known for his long-syndicated TV show.
A showdown like Tuesday’s, clips from which are sure to be played on local news and in paid TV ads in a state that already has seen tens of millions of dollars worth of political commercials, could move the race. Here’s what we learned after an hour — which involved a lot of shouting and rapid fire answers — in Harrisburg:
Fetterman’s performance reinforced questions about his recovery from a May stroke
“Good night, everybody,” Fetterman said by way of introduction to viewers as he began his answer to the evening’s first question about what qualifies him to be a senator.
Fetterman then used much of his allotted 60 seconds to discuss what he called “the elephant in the room.”
“I had a stroke,” Fetterman said, before taking a shot at Oz, whose campaign has made his health a central issue. “He’s never let me forget that. And I might miss some words during this debate, smoosh two words together. It knocked me down, but I’m gonna keep coming back up.”
The debate actually began with a lengthy explanation of the closed-captioning system that allowed Fetterman, who also has auditory processing issues that linger after his stroke, to read on a screen questions and answers transcribed in real time. There were occasional pauses between questions to Fetterman and his answers to them. At one point, during a back-and-forth on education, Oz seemed to allude to Fetterman’s struggles.
“Obviously I wasn’t clear enough for you to understand this,” Oz, a heart surgeon, said in a comment directed at Fetterman.
Under pressure from the moderators, Fetterman again declined to commit to releasing his medical records.
The hour-long debate was the most intense political test Fetterman has faced since the stroke, and his advisers sought on Monday to lower expectations for his performance.
In the post-debate spin room Tuesday night, Fetterman spokesperson Joe Calvello faced repeated questions from reporters about Fetterman’s halting delivery and struggle with words. Calvello asserted that Fetterman did “pretty damn well.” Oz spokesperson Barney Keller pronounced it a “disaster” for Fetterman.
One Pennsylvania Democratic official, who asked to remain anonymous to speak candidly about the party’s nominee, said debate will “definitely not” sway any voters to Fetterman.
“But hopefully it doesn’t sway people the other way.” the official added. “In some ways, Fetterman might be helped by how polarized and tribal things are these days.”
Oz wants ‘local political leaders’ to be involved in determining when women can have an abortion
Oz, who has said in the past that he believes abortion is murder at any stage of pregnancy, refused to offer a yes or no answer to questions about whether he’d support a federal ban on the procedure at 15 weeks. He instead said he opposes federal laws that could limit how states decide to approach abortion. But how he phrased that response immediately raised eyebrows.
“I don’t want the federal government involved with that at all,” Oz said. “I want women, doctors, local political leaders letting the democracy that’s always allowed our nation to thrive to put the best ideas forward so states can decide for themselves.”
After the debate, Fetterman’s campaign quickly seized on the “local political leaders” part.
“Our campaign will be putting money behind making sure as many women as possible hear Dr. Oz’s radical belief that ‘local political leaders’ should have as much say over a woman’s abortion decisions as women themselves and their doctors,” Calvello said in a statement. “After months of trying to hide his extreme abortion position, Oz let it slip on the debate stage on Tuesday. Oz belongs nowhere near the U.S. Senate, and suburban voters across Pennsylvania will see just how out-of-touch Oz is on this issue.”
Neither candidate owned up to their conflicting positions on fracking
The controversial and environmentally risky process to drill for natural gas is a huge local issue in Pennsylvania, and Fetterman and Oz have both signaled opposition to it in the past. They now cast themselves as proponents and did not own up to their flip-flops.
The segment on the topic was particularly brutal for Fetterman.
“I’ve always supported fracking,” he said at one point, before co-moderator Lisa Sylvester of WPXI in Pittsburgh pressed him on a 2018 interview in which he said he “never” did.
“I do support fracking and, I don’t … I support fracking, and I stand and I do support fracking,” Fetterman responded when confronted with the answer from four years ago.
Oz similarly dodged or failed to offer clear answers on several other issues
Fetterman’s advisers, in a preemptive move to raise expectations for Oz and lower them for their candidate, predicted the TV doctor’s showmanship would come through. And Oz indeed offered crisp answers to many questions — but without actually answering them.
After Fetterman said he supports a $15 federal minimum wage, Oz said that he agreed the wage was too low and accused Fetterman of “shooting too low.”
But Oz talked around whether he supports a $15 federal minimum wage by arguing that “market forces” are driving up wages and vaguely suggesting that fracking in Pennsylvania would create “plenty of money to go around.”
When asked about promoting unproven medical treatments via his syndicated TV show, Oz instead answered a question that wasn’t asked and denied directly selling such products.
“It’s a television show, like this is a television show,” Oz said. “So people can run commercials on the shows, and that’s a perfectly appropriate and very transparent process.”
The crime issue isn’t going away for Fetterman
Many of the ads aired by Oz and national groups over the last few months have focused on Fetterman’s stance on criminal justice issues.
In the debate’s early minutes, Oz noted how he invited Maureen Faulkner, the widow of a Philadelphia police officer who was shot in the 1980s and has been critical of Fetterman, to accompany him to the debate. Oz used her presence to underscore what he has called Fetterman’s “extreme” positions, including leniency for those convicted of second-degree murder.
Later in the debate, co-moderator Dennis Owens of WHTM in Harrisburg, asked Fetterman to respond to the attacks that he’s soft on crime.
“I believe that I run on my record on crime,” Fetterman replied. “You know, I ran to be mayor [of Braddock, a small town near Pittsburgh] back in 2005 in order to fight gun violence, and that’s exactly what I did.”
At another point in the debate, Oz attempted to turn Fetterman’s law-and-order narrative back on him by bringing up a years-old encounter in which Fetterman, during his tenure as mayor, chased down a Black jogger with a shotgun. Fetterman has said he heard what sounded like gunfire and saw a man running away. According to a police report, the man was unarmed.
“Why haven’t you apologized to that unarmed innocent Black man?” Oz asked Fetterman.
Fetterman replied that he had the “opportunity to defend our community as the chief law enforcement officer there” and asserted that an “overwhelming majority of the community,” including Black residents, “understood what happened.”