Democratic Pennsylvania Senate candidate John Fetterman is stepping up his public appearances after weeks of heavy scrutiny over his health — including from Republican opponent Mehmet Oz.
Over the weekend, Fetterman drew a crowd of 1,000 at a Scranton rally and is slated to hold another rally in Philadelphia this weekend. The campaign said they saw a crowd of 3,000 attend a rally with Fetterman and Planned Parenthood earlier this month in Philadelphia, the same day as the home opener for the Philadelphia Eagles, no less.
“In eastern Pennsylvania, [that’s] a pretty big flex,” said one Democratic operative with ties to the race.
The change in pace for the Fetterman campaign comes as Oz and Republicans have sought to portray the lieutenant governor as weak and absent from the campaign trail following a stroke he suffered in May.
“We’re really seeing something really special play out here in Pennsylvania,” said Fetterman campaign spokesperson Joe Calvello. “Now we’re back out there and I think people are hungry.”
Oz’s allies, on the other hand, argue that Fetterman’s rallies aren’t necessarily a sign of transparency.
“Yes, Fetterman has held some rallies, but he still doesn’t take any questions,” said one Republican strategist, who noted that Oz has done local and national interviews. Fetterman has recently given interviews to The New York Times, Politico and MSNBC.
Fetterman also recently agreed to an Oct. 25 televised debate in Harrisburg after weeks of pressure from the Oz campaign.
The lieutenant governor also faced pressure from the press, with The Washington Post and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette arguing he should commit to debating Oz for the sake of transparency for the voters.
But the Fetterman campaign has maintained that debating was never off the table for them, saying that the timing was just a matter of dealing with the lingering effects of the stroke, including ones related to auditory processing.
Yet the back-and-forth over the televised forum did not end with Fetterman agreeing to the debate.
Shortly after Fetterman announced he was attending the forum, the Oz campaign rolled out a statement demanding that the Fetterman campaign agree to three conditions: that the moderator explain that Fetterman is using a closed-captioning system, that questions in practice sessions do not resemble the questions in the live debate and that the debate would be extended from 60 minutes to 90 minutes.
Fetterman’s campaign subsequently rolled out a statement accusing Oz of “trying to move the goalposts, because this is his only play.”
Democrats also argue that the haggling over the debates will ultimately amount to much ado about nothing.
“Debate stuff and debate conversations are a lot [heavier weighted] amongst, for lack of a better word, the media class,” the Democratic operative said. “The reality is they don’t have the same weight amongst actual voters.”
Oz’s campaign has continued to pressure Fetterman to do more debates and extend the length of the Oct. 25 debate, arguing that if he doesn’t it is “yet another pathetic attempt by Fetterman to avoid giving Pennsylvanians the full and robust debate they are owed.”
“For months John Fetterman lied and dragged his feet on debating Dr. Oz and with absentee ballots already out, voters still won’t see a debate until the end of October,” said Rachel Tripp, a senior communications adviser to Oz’s campaign. “John Fetterman needs to agree to more debates so more voters can take part and they need to be extended to 90 minutes to accommodate for closed captioning concessions that have been made.”
Democrats, on the other hand, have brushed off Oz’s demands.
“Some people can’t take yes for an answer,” said T.J. Rooney, the former chairman of the Pennsylvania Democratic Party. “Oz needs to get over it. He wanted to debate and now he’s got a debate. So, next: How do you feel about abortion?”
Meanwhile, Fetterman has been leaning into more face time with voters.
“I’m not going to suggest to you that there wasn’t a time when people talked about the state of his health, but that time seems to be behind us now because of his ever-increasing presence on the trail,” Rooney said.
Many of those visits to the trail have led Fetterman to destinations where Democrats aren’t necessarily popular.
On Tuesday, Fetterman visited Indiana County, which former President Trump won by 68 percent in 2020. While Democrats say they are under no illusion that Fetterman could sweep the “ruby red” county, they say votes in the state’s conservative stronghold are still needed to reach the finish line in November.
“There’s a really interesting dynamic. If you are a Trump-Mastriano voter, how in God’s name do you vote for Mehmet Oz?” Rooney said. “I think that the fact that he spends time in areas where lots of Democrats don’t spend lots of time makes it that much easier for him.”
But Fetterman’s campaign is also looking to target the suburbs of Philadelphia, which could also hold sway come November. Fetterman’s rally with Planned Parenthood in the city earlier this month was a method of using abortion to galvanize the Democratic base while attracting the much-talked-about suburban voting contingent.
“Especially in the collar counties around Philadelphia, Democrats have been doing better and better, in particular thanks to suburban women,” said one national Democratic strategist.
Fetterman’s campaign has particularly homed in on pressuring Oz to say whether he supports Sen. Lindsey Graham’s (R-S.C.) proposed nationwide ban on abortion. When asked about the legislation at an event in Philadelphia on Monday, Oz said he has not seen Graham’s proposal and that he supports state control over abortion rights.
Republicans argue that while abortion may be a hot-button issue, it’s issues like inflation and crime that will ultimately decide the election.
In fact, Oz has recently zeroed in on crime. On Monday, Oz’s campaign held a “Safer Streets Community Discussion” in Philadelphia, in which he addressed his plan to advocate for the state’s Black community.
“I think focusing on the economy, inflation and crime will continue for the next 49 days to be the top issues for Republicans and also for voters as they go to the ballot box on Nov. 8,” the national Republican strategist said.