PITTSBURGH — In a critical victory for Democrats, Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. John Fetterman is projected to win his U.S. Senate race, overcoming a stroke and attacks on his criminal justice record to flip a seat that had been in Republican hands for 12 years.
Fetterman defeated Republican nominee Mehmet Oz, a cardiothoracic surgeon known to millions of Americans as Dr. Oz thanks to his career as a daytime TV talk show host.
The Democrat succeeded in painting Oz, who lived in northern New Jersey until he ran for Senate, as a rich, out-of-touch celebrity without any real ties to, or concern for, the state he hoped to represent in Washington.
“This campaign ― my campaign ― was all about trying to serve Pennsylvania,” Fetterman told supporters at a preelection rally in Pittsburgh on Monday night. “And he’s just using Pennsylvania.”
Once major news outlets had officially declared Fetterman the winner after 1 a.m. Wednesday morning, he emerged to the sounds of ACDC’s “Back in Black” ― his rally walk-on theme music ― to greet supporters onstage at a Pittsburgh concert venue.
He emphasized the positive themes of his campaign, rather than the contrast with Oz. He had run, he said, on “protecting a woman’s right to choose” an abortion, raising the minimum wage, defending the “union way of life,” making health care a “fundamental human right,” reviving American manufacturing, protecting democracy and “standing up to corporate greed.”
Fetterman connected his recent health struggles with the challenges of ordinary Pennsylvanians and small towns like Braddock, where his work helping children get their high school equivalency degrees inspired him to get involved in politics.
“This campaign has always been about fighting for anyone who’s ever been knocked and ever got back up,” he told the cheering audience of hundreds of supporters. “This race is for the future of every community across Pennsylvania, for every small town or person that ever felt left behind, for every job that has ever been lost, for every factory that was ever closed, for every person that works hard but never got ahead.”
Oz’s loss is a crushing setback for former President Donald Trump, who sought to install an ally in the seat set to be vacated by retiring Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.).
Trump, a former TV star who admired Oz’s success in the New York City entertainment world, played a crucial role in Oz’s victory in the Republican primary over hedge fund manager Dave McCormick and conservative activist Kathy Barnette.
Oz faced skepticism from the grassroots right over past comments supporting some degree of abortion rights and gun control, as well as doubts about extracting natural gas through fracking. Trump’s endorsement and in-person campaigning for Oz, however, helped him narrowly edge out McCormick in May.
In the end, Oz’s lack of roots in Pennsylvania was a far greater burden in the general election than his ties to Trump, or the related matter of him indulging the former president’s false claims that the 2020 election was stolen.
Oz was a perfect foil for Fetterman, the son of an affluent insurance executive and a graduate of the Harvard Kennedy School who nonetheless looks the part of a blue-collar Pennsylvanian. Clad in his signature Carhartt hooded sweatshirt, Fetterman sounded credible making fun of “Doc Oz in his Gucci loafers.”
Oz’s verbal flubs over the summer only strengthened Fetterman’s hand. In an August video trying to highlight inflation, Oz singled out the cost of a vegetable tray that he called “crudités,” prompting a running gag about Oz’s elite taste and lexicon.
“John’s been in Pennsylvania his whole life,” said Vince Tulio, a Montgomery Township contractor and registered Republican who voted for Trump twice in the past and for Fetterman on Tuesday. “He listens to people.”
Referring to Oz’s purchase of a home in Pennsylvania as part of his Senate run, Tulio added, “That’s not somebody that I want to send to Washington to look out for my best interests as a Pennsylvanian.”
Fetterman’s win is that much more remarkable because he suffered a nearly fatal stroke mere days before the Democratic primary in mid-May. He underwent surgery to have a pacemaker-defibrillator inserted on the day of his massive primary win over Rep. Conor Lamb and state Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta. Fetterman’s wife, Gisele Barreto Fetterman, spoke in his stead at a primary results party and continued to play a greater role in his campaign through Election Day, delivering speeches at rallies and providing interviews with journalists.
Fetterman took nearly three months to recover from the stroke before returning to the campaign trail with a rally in Erie in mid-August. His stroke affected the part of the brain that processes auditory speech, leading him to speak more haltingly and mix up words. He agreed to few interviews with the press and required closed captioning for several of the high-profile interviews he conducted.
It took Fetterman until late October to release a note from his physician affirming what the Democrat had been saying all along: that Fetterman was “recovering well from his stroke” and that his communication issues did not reflect a deeper cognitive problem.
“He has no work restrictions and can work full duty in public office,” wrote Dr. Clifford Chen, who is also a donor to Fetterman’s campaign.
The impact of the stroke on Fetterman’s communication, however, was never more apparent than in his sole debate with Oz on Oct. 25. In that matchup, he struggled to respond to Oz’s verbal broadsides crisply and quickly. His inability to explain in real time why he had come around to supporting fracking after opposing it for years was a particular low point. (On other occasions, he has said that Pennsylvania’s success in regulating the industry had assuaged his initial skepticism.)
By that time, Oz and his allies had closed a polling gap by spending months relentlessly attacking Fetterman’s record as chair of Pennsylvania’s Board of Pardons. He accused Fetterman of recommending pardons or sentence commutations to release hardened lawbreakers at a time of rising crime, not least in Pennsylvania cities like Philadelphia.
Oz also painted himself as a moderate seeking “balance” in Washington, unlike Fetterman, whose positions on crime and tax policy he characterized as “extreme.”
“Are you unhappy with where America is headed?” Oz asked at the conclusion of the October debate. “I am, and if you are as well, then I’m the candidate for change.”
Some of the Republican attacks on Fetterman’s record were misleading. One video of Fetterman explaining his opposition to a Pennsylvania law mandating a life sentence without parole for the charge of second-degree murder was used to make it sound as though he had a permissive attitude toward murder itself.
Fetterman mainly worked to grant a second chance to nonviolent offenders and to people like the Horton brothers, who were serving mandatory life sentences for allegedly participating in an act that resulted in a murder that they did not commit themselves. He enlisted allies in the law enforcement community, such as Montgomery County Sheriff Sean Kilkenny, to dispel claims that he was an adversary of policing, and he invoked his success as mayor of Braddock in halting murders in the impoverished town for five years straight.
Fetterman also used Oz’s admission during their debate that he wants to leave abortion rights up to women, doctors, and “local political leaders” to remind voters of the implications of Oz’s stated belief that abortion policy should be set by state governments. And he tied Oz to far-right Republican gubernatorial candidate Doug Mastriano, with whom Oz appeared onstage at a Trump rally in Latrobe on Saturday.
“You cannot stand on stage with a stronger opponent of abortion rights than Doug Mastriano,” Fetterman said Monday night.
Notwithstanding Oz’s insistence that he would not support federal laws restricting abortion rights, Fetterman’s effort to frame the election as a black-and-white choice on abortion policy reached its intended audience.
“These men having opinions that women shouldn’t have control of their bodies is just absolutely insanity and egotistical, and those people shouldn’t be in office,” said Kaleigh Mitchell, an academic adviser at a university who lives in the suburb of Upper St. Clair.