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Fetterman's health, return to campaign trail a mystery as some Democrats grow 'very nervous' about Pa. Senate race

His team is dismissing concerns about his condition and a lack of transparency around his hospitalization, vowing he "will be fully ready for the hard fight ahead."

WASHINGTON — Pennsylvania Democratic Senate nominee John Fetterman does not have a timetable for returning to the campaign trail, sparking some worries in the party nearly three weeks after he suffered a stroke and surgeons implanted a pacemaker with a defibrillator to regulate his heartbeat.

Fetterman, the state’s lieutenant governor, has appeared publicly only in recorded video since the stroke. His wife is speaking to the media on his behalf. And the situation has prompted Democrats to refresh their knowledge of state ballot-replacement law — the deadline is in August — according to two party sources who said they don’t anticipate a candidate switch being necessary.

Still, some of Fetterman’s fellow Democrats say they are worried both about his health and what they describe as a lack of transparency from his team about just what happened when he was hospitalized last month. Days later, Fetterman won a contested primary in a blowout, capturing all 67 counties.

There has been “no indication” of a timeline for Fetterman’s return to the trail, said an elected Pennsylvania Democrat who has interacted with Fetterman. “A lot of us Democratic Party types are very nervous about it.” The official, who asked not to be named to avoid blowback from his party, said Fetterman needs to be transparent both because it’s the right thing to do and good politics.

Fetterman’s health and its political implications are no small concern for Democrats. Pennsylvania is widely viewed as their party’s best pick-up opportunity in a midterm election cycle in which control of the Senate hinges on the outcome of a handful of races. And his absence from the campaign trail has robbed Democrats of a head start toward the general election. The Republican primary is mired in a recount, with fewer than a thousand votes separating Mehmet Oz — the celebrity TV doctor with a background in cardiothoracic surgery — and former hedge fund executive Dave McCormick.

“I think people I’ve talked to — myself included — don’t know what to make of it,” said a veteran Pennsylvania Democratic strategist who requested anonymity to speak candidly about a sensitive subject. “It’s not like Fetterman has close institutional allies, so Dems are calling around wanting to ask the question, but no clue where to get a sense of how serious it is.” 

Image:
John Fetterman with voters while he campaigns at the Holy Hound Tap Room in downtown York, Pa., on May 12. Mark Pynes / The Patriot-News via AP

Asked when Fetterman plans to be back on the road, his campaign said only that it plans to make an announcement “soon” regarding his return.

In response to a series of questions from NBC News, Fetterman communications director Joe Calvello said the candidate is “on the path to a full recovery” and will be “back at full strength.”

Calvello cited new endorsements from four Pennsylvania congresswomen, the backing of the Service Employees International Union and record fundraising for the campaign in May. “John is going to continue to take his time and focus on his recovery, but with so much at stake in this race, he will be fully ready for the hard fight ahead,” he said. “His campaign isn’t slowing down one bit.”

For now, “John is currently at home in Braddock with his family,” Calvello said in an email Wednesday. “Today John held a call with his senior staff, and he has been up and going for walks, running errands, and enjoying time with his family.”

Fetterman had a check-up in Lancaster on Wednesday. The doctors “said that cognitively John is perfect, and well on his way to a full recovery here,” Calvello said, and added that the cardiologist said “John’s heart is looking good and performing well” with the pacemaker working.

Calvello said he “has been out of the hospital since May 22” and is improving “every day” but that doctors and his wife, Gisele, “are urging him to take it slow.”

The careful statements from Fetterman’s campaign since his stroke and surgery have done little to answer lingering questions about his health or whether he has fully disclosed the scope of his heart condition. Several cardiologists told The Philadelphia Inquirer last week that defibrillators are not used to treat atrial fibrillation, the irregular heart rhythm that the campaign has said led to Fetterman’s stroke. In an interview with Politico, Gisele Fetterman said doctors found no new heart issues during a Wednesday follow-up with the physicians who treated his stroke.

“Not at all,” she told Politico. “The heart’s working great.”

Gisele Fetterman also said the campaign was “working on” making her husband’s physicians available to the media and indicated that the long-delayed step “is coming next.”

On a Thursday call that the Pennsylvania Democratic Party arranged to preview their general election attacks against Oz or McCormick, Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., and Nancy Patton Mills, the state party chair, both were pressed about Fetterman’s health. Both insisted that they were optimistic of a full recovery and that they were satisfied with what the campaign has shared publicly.

“I’ve stayed in touch with John and his family, and he’ll be ready for the campaign trail,” Casey said. “After a long primary on both sides, in both parties, I think voters need a little rest, too. They don’t need to be hearing from candidates every minute of every day.”

Mills defended the campaign’s unwillingness to share specific details, saying she believed Fetterman was waiting for the results of Wednesday’s follow-up appointment.

“We’ve been in contact with the Fetterman campaign every day since John had the episode and the procedure,” Mills said. “I’ve talked to Gisele many, many times, and my staff has talked to their staff, and we have been assured that he is in fine shape. He’s recovering right on schedule.” 

In an interview with NBC News, Rep. Matt Cartwright, D-Pa., said Fetterman’s performance in the primary “presages some real strength in the fall” election.

“It’s hard to put into words but Mr. Fetterman seems to have tapped into something out there, whether it’s a mood or a philosophy or an ideology,” Cartwright said, joking that he would like to emulate Fetterman’s style. “Right now, I’m considering shaving my head and going for some pretty good tattoos.”

Asked about fears that Republicans might attack Fetterman over the health issue, he said: “They’re going to attack John Fetterman with everything they have and things they don’t have. He seems to me to be the sort of fellow who can soldier on and weather those attacks.”

The National Republican Senatorial Committee’s independent expenditure operation plans to start running ads in the state Friday. That arm of the party typically produces spots that attack Democratic candidates.

Some Democrats say a recount in the bitter Republican primary in the state has given Fetterman cover.

“There’s a saving grace here: We don’t know who the Republican nominee is and the Republicans don’t have their house in order,” said one veteran Pennsylvania Democratic operative. “If they did, the narrative would be on ‘Is John Fetterman healthy?’”

The source added that there is “some real concern,” in part because “there has not been a lot of communication” from Fetterman’s team and it is “unclear what his health is.”

Asked about those worries, Calvello replied: “Not sure who these anonymous Democrats are, but I imagine it’s the same people who didn’t want John to win the primary in the first place.”