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GOP takes indirect aim at Fetterman's health in Pennsylvania Senate race

Rather than attack the Democrat over his heart problem, Republicans are questioning his campaign's transparency in disclosing health information.
John Fetterman
Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, D-Pa., attends a rally at the UFCW Local 1776 KS headquarters in Plymouth Meeting, Pa., on April 16, 2022.Tom Williams / CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images file

The well-wishing is over. Now Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. John Fetterman’s stroke is officially a campaign issue in the swing state’s U.S. Senate race.

But rather than directly criticize Fetterman over his health, Republicans are taking a different approach: bashing the Democrat for not being more transparent about the stroke that hospitalized him four days before he handily won the May 17 primary.

The Fetterman campaign waited two days to disclose his hospitalization, issued a statement that confused cardiologists and later acknowledged that he had a previously undisclosed heart condition that led doctors to install a pacemaker with a defibrillator last month. He was released from the hospital several days after the election.

On Thursday, the National Republican Senatorial Committee, or NRSC, released a web ad that featured news coverage of pundits and reporters discussing the Fetterman campaign’s evolving explanations of his health and hospitalization, asking, “Does John Fetterman Have a Problem Telling the Truth?”

The ad, from the campaign arm of Senate Republicans, was a marked departure from recent comments by Fetterman’s opponent, celebrity TV doctor Mehmet Oz, who wished him well when he was first hospitalized.

It is also the first time Fetterman's health has been raised — although indirectly — by Republicans, who plan a paid TV media buy to tarnish the brand of a Democrat who built a reputation as a larger-than-life straight talker, according to an NRSC consultant who was not authorized to discuss campaign strategy publicly. The consultant said the NRSC also plans to target Fetterman over how he has discussed a 2013 incident when he pulled a gun on Black man he suspected of criminal acts.

Pennsylvania Democrats, meanwhile, have expressed concerns about how the Fetterman campaign has handled both the stroke and discussion of the gun incident. But a spokesman for the lieutenant governor said the GOP criticisms won't work with voters.

“Pennsylvania voters know and trust John Fetterman. Who they don’t trust is Mehmet Oz, who is a fraudster and a scam artist who isn’t even from and doesn’t know Pennsylvania,” Fetterman spokesman Joe Calvello said, obliquely referring to a Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee web ad attack on Oz, whose campaign wouldn’t comment.

Fetterman’s wife, Gisele Fetterman, insisted in an NBC News interview that aired Wednesday that her family and the campaign were open about his condition as they were just trying to “navigate these very personal and difficult things very publicly.”

“We have done a superb job on transparency,” she said.

On Election Day, Gisele Fetterman suggested her husband's condition wasn’t so bad, calling the stroke “a little hiccup.” She said he’d be “back on his feet in no time.” But Fetterman remained in the hospital for nine days, and his campaign says he’s still resting and might not be back on the trail until July.

It wasn’t until last Friday that Fetterman, in a statement issued by his doctor, disclosed that he had been diagnosed in 2017 with “atrial fibrillation, an irregular heart rhythm, along with a decreased heart pump.”

Fetterman, who is 6-feet-8 and weighed 418 pounds at the time of his diagnosis, when he was the mayor of Braddock, promptly went on a diet after the diagnosis, and a year later he touted his new healthy lifestyle, telling the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review he had lost 148 pounds. He didn't mention his heart problem in that interview, nor was he taking his heart medications or seeing his doctor at the time.

“He probably thought to himself: ‘I lost 150 pounds. I’m running around. I’m healthy now. I don’t need to tell anyone or see my doctor or take my medications.’ Well, that was dumb. Now he’s got a pacemaker, and people are asking questions,” said Neil Oxman, a Pennsylvania Democratic strategist.

Oxman said the Republican attack on Fetterman’s transparency was the only way to broach his health without seeming cruel. But he said it would have limited salience with voters because of the timing and because Fetterman is expected to be back on the campaign trail.

“If he’s up and running three weeks from now, no one will care,” Oxman said.

Republican consultant Charlie Gerow, who ran unsuccessfully for governor in last month's GOP primary, agreed with Oxman that the attack is “not a game changer,” saying Fetterman will be bogged down more by the toll of inflation and other headwinds facing Democrats in the midterm elections.

But Gerow said that in a closely divided swing state, everything matters.

“When candidates don’t talk straight, it doesn’t play well,” Gerow said.