LATROBE, Pa. — Two former presidents duked it out with dueling rallies Saturday across western Pennsylvania, where they stumped for Senate candidates locked in one of the most consequential races of the cycle and offered wildly different visions of America as the final midterm fight centers on the Keystone State.
Around noon, Barack Obama rallied with Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, the Democratic Senate nominee, along with Democratic candidates in local House races on the University of Pittsburgh's campus. Hours later, Donald Trump campaigned with Republican Senate nominee Mehmet Oz, GOP gubernatorial nominee Doug Mastriano, and down-ballot Republicans at a regional airport in Latrobe, about an hour east of Pittsburgh.
At attention for both former presidents is which party's nominee wins one of the most sought after Senate seats in the country.
Fetterman and Oz are locked in a neck-and-neck race that could determine control of the Senate. Should Republicans retain control of the seat currently held by Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., it's likely they can recapture control of the congressional chamber. If Fetterman wins, Democrats have a fighting chance of maintaining the Senate majority.
Obama framed the fight as one between a Democratic nominee in Fetterman who will fight for working-class Pennsylvanians and to improve the economy, protect healthcare, abortion rights and democracy. He's up against a Republican Party increasingly focused on being able to "own the libs," as Obama said, and do whatever it takes to win Trump's approval, whether that mean discarding sacred democratic principles and norms that underpin the U.S. electoral system.
Trump, on the other hand, framed Oz as potentially the last line of defense against what he described as a hellscape of crime, inflation and undocumented immigration into the country. But he also made sure to repeatedly inject his false claims that widespread electoral malfeasance cost him his re-election bid, suggest without evidence that Tuesday's results may be tainted and teased that he will announce his 2024 presidential bid in a "very, very, very short period of time."
Speaking across the street from Pitt's Cathedral of Learning, Obama opened by warning of a rising tide of antisemitism and overall "dangerous climate" in the country stemming from polarized social media and over-the-top political rhetoric. He then argued the election is a question of "who will fight for you?"
Obama took aim at inflation and acknowledged how much rising costs are hurting Americans. But he said inflation is a problem not just at home, but abroad, and said Republicans solution will merely be "to gut" Social Security and Medicare while giving tax breaks to the wealthy.
"If there was an asteroid headed towards Earth," Obama said, Republicans would "get in the room and say, 'you know what we need tax cuts for the rich.'"
He accused Republicans of not being "interested in actually solving problems."
"Just about every GOP politician seems obsessed with two things," he said. "They want to own the libs. Let’s get the libs. And let’s get Donald Trump’s approval."
With Fetterman still recovering from a stroke earlier this year, Obama said the health crisis "did not change who he is, it didn't change what he cares about."
"It didn’t change his values, his heart, his fight," Obama said. "When he gets to the United States Senate, he’ll represent you, and that’s what you deserve."
Oz, Obama said, would be a vote for Trump in case of another close election in 2024. He then argued for why protecting democracy should be at top of mind for voters.
"Sometimes it feels like government isn’t making enough progress on the issues that matter to you and your family," he said. "I get that because sometimes progress is slow."
"But let me tell you something, Pennsylvania, we’ve seen throughout history we’ve seen around the world, what happens when you give up on democracy," he continued, adding, "When that happens, people get hurt. That has real life consequences."
Both Oz and Fetterman spoke briefly at their respective rallies, with Fetterman joking that "if you’re gonna give a speech after you’ve been recovering from a stroke, you really don’t want to have to come before Barack Obama." He added he was "proud to be standing with a president that is 100% sedition free," pointing to Oz campaigning with Trump. Fetterman pledged to support a number of Democratic-backed policy initiatives, including eliminating the Senate filibuster, or 60-vote threshold to advance most legislation.
Oz, meanwhile, sought to portray himself at Trump's rally as a moderate, middle-of-the-road Republican who was for boosting public safety, securing the border and allowing "legal immigration because" his father had benefitted from such opportunity.
"What surgeons do is tackle big problems," he said. "And we do it successfully. In my case, fixing broken hearts by working with everybody, by making sure we unify people in the operating room, not divide them. The same will work for our nation."
No one Saturday spoke longer than Trump, who addressed supporters at Arnold Palmer Regional Airport for roughly two hours, hitting on a number of hot-button cultural issues, his false claims of widespread "cheating" in the 2020 election and promoting the candidacies of Oz and Mastriano.
"We're a nation that in many ways has become a joke," Trump said near the end of his address. Later, he promised that Republicans "will stand up to the radical left Democrats and the dangerous and unpatriotic RINOs" (Republicans in Name Only).
In teasing his presidential bid, Trump said he did not want to make a formal announcement so as to take attention away from Oz, Mastriano and other Republicans.
"So I want the focus to be of them," Trump said, adding, "And very, very soon — you’re gonna be surprised at how soon — but first, we have to win a historic victory for Republicans on November 8."
He called the upcoming elections "the most important midterm election in American history" — a point the Democrats at the earlier rally concurred with. Oz, Trump said, is "desperately" needed in the Senate where "he could very well be the tie-breaking vote."
Oz, he added, would be "much better than the senator that he's replacing" in Toomey, who voted to impeach Trump after the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol and who has been campaigning alongside Oz for months.
He spoke on a number of issues animating conservative voters through the election cycle, including the theme of "parents rights" and discussions of race and gender in schools.
"We will get critical race theory out of our schools out of our military and out of every part of our federal, state and local governments," he said, adding, "No teacher should ever be allowed to teach transgender to our children without parental consent."
He falsely asserted that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court recently ruled the 2020 election in the state was rigged. (The court had ruled that undated or incorrectly dated mail-in ballots should be rejected in the upcoming election. The number of such ballots in 2020 was far less than Trump's margin of defeat to President Joe Biden).
Trump then opened the door to claiming that either Oz or Mastriano could be the victim of a fraudulent election.
"Remember, at like 9:30, in the evening ... I was up by almost a million votes," Trump said. "And then all of a sudden, like magic, it disappeared. And I'm so worried about Oz and Doug."
"We can't let this happen," he continued, adding, "And we're not gonna let it happen again."
Much of the rest of Trump's speech was freewheeling. At one point, when showing the crowd polls of the potential 2024 Republican primary, he referred to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, another potential 2024 candidate, as "Ron DeSanctimonious."
"I'm winging," Trump said, "about 80% of what I'm saying."