Pennsylvania Republican Senate candidate Mehmet Oz is going on the offensive against his Democratic rival John Fetterman after weeks of falling victim to Fetterman’s robust digital operation and trailing in the polls.
This week marked a shift in Oz’s strategy as his campaign ramped up pressure on Fetterman to participate in televised debates. Meanwhile, a pro-Oz group rolled out an ad targeting Fetterman over a 2013 incident in which he pulled a gun on a Black male jogger he suspected of a crime.
His new onslaught against Fetterman come as the environment in Pennsylvania and across the country increasingly favors Senate Democrats, with several election handicappers recently shifting the Keystone State Senate race into the “toss-up” category.
The latest RealClearPolitics polling average shows Fetterman leading Oz by 6.5 points, but Oz’s allies say that the Republican will likely close that gap as many candidates do after Labor Day.
“It’s full steam ahead,” said one national Republican operative. “I think Dr. Oz’s shift is just everyone is coalescing around him and Fetterman can no longer hide behind Twitter.”
The week’s coverage of the race was largely dominated by the back-and-forth between Oz and Fetterman’s teams over scheduling televised debates ahead of Election Day.
Oz has called on Fetterman to participate in a series of debates beginning this month. On Tuesday, the Republican Senate candidate used a joint press conference with retiring Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) to call on the lieutenant governor to debate the celebrity doctor. The following day, Fetterman told Politico in an interview that he is committed to attending one debate against Oz “sometime in the middle to end of October” and on a “major television station” in Pennsylvania.
“We’re absolutely going to debate Dr. Oz, and that was really always our intent to do that,” Fetterman told the outlet. “It was just simply only ever been about addressing some of the lingering issues of the stroke, the auditory processing, and we’re going to be able to work that out.”
Oz’s allies have framed the interview as a concession from Fetterman after Oz hit him over debate attendance. They also point to the fact that Fetterman was absent from a primary debate that took place in early April.
“Before John Fetterman had his stroke he was also scared to debate his opponents, especially in the primaries,” said the national GOP operative.
Oz’s allies argue that a debate held during the middle or end of October will be too late for most voters looking to vote early. Fetterman’s allies say that the date works well given that the election is on most voters’ minds by the middle of October, as opposed to a September debate.
Republicans also point to what they say is a natural advantage for the former TV doctor.
“He’s got a huge amount of experience on television and that experience is in an interactive setting, so I think he’s used to that,” said Keith Naughton, a Republican strategist with experience working on Pennsylvania campaigns. “The key for him is to have some good practice so that he can handle some of the aggressive questioning that he’s not used to.”
Democrats, on the other hand, argue that the Oz camp is essentially using the back-and-forth over the debates as a distraction from what they say are bigger issues with the Republican candidate.
“It’s important to remember that he’s attempting to dig out of a pretty big hole that he’s in after the summer he had,” said a national Democratic operative. “If any issue has been defining the race it’s been ‘Mehmet Oz is not from Pennsylvania and doesn’t get Pennsylvanians.’ ”
Fetterman’s campaign over the summer launched an aggressive digital campaign painting Oz as out of touch and unfamiliar with the state. In July, they enlisted former “Jersey Shore” cast member Nicole “Snooki” LaValle to highlight the question of Oz’s residency in a campaign video. Fetterman also started a petition last month to add Oz to the New Jersey Hall of Fame. Fetterman and Democrats have also hammered Oz over his properties.
“Every week of this campaign has brought fresh revelations about Mehmet Oz that have put him on the defensive, and they’ve all pointed to one conclusion: he’s a fraud, an out-of-touch millionaire who doesn’t understand the concerns of Pennsylvania’s working families,” said Patrick Burgwinkle, a spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. “The only reason he’s running for Senate is to serve himself, and his multi-millionaire friends, and that’s why he’ll be rejected in November.”
Fetterman’s supporters also pointed to an op-ed from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s editorial board on Friday calling on Oz to stop attacking Fetterman over the debates.
“Now that Mr. Fetterman has thrown down the gauntlet, it’s time for Mr. Oz to call off his attack dogs,” the paper’s editorial board wrote.
The op-ed marks a notable change in tone for the publication, which had argued that Oz had “legitimate concerns” about Fetterman’s health amid the debate row.
“If Mr. Fetterman is not well enough to debate his opponent, that raises serious concerns about his ability to serve as a United States senator,” the piece said.
While plans for a debate have not yet been set in stone, most observers seem to agree that Pennsylvanians shouldn’t count on seeing Fetterman and Oz on a debate stage together more than once.
“I expected that they’re going to do one and that’s it,” Naughton said.