During Pennsylvania’s Senate primary, Black Democrats worried that the GOP would target voters with ads about the time Democrat John Fetterman pulled a gun on a Black jogger he wrongly suspected of a crime.
Now it’s on the air.
A political committee backing Fetterman's opponent in the general election, Republican Mehmet Oz, is launching a 30-second TV ad about the incident that started airing Tuesday on networks that have solid African American viewership, such as Black Entertainment Television, the Oprah Winfrey Network, MSNBC and ESPN, the group, American Leadership Action, said by email. The committee also has a companion 15-second digital ad designed to reach Black voters on their smartphones and social media feeds.
The $500,000 ad campaign comes as Oz, the celebrity TV doctor, has struggled to gain traction since his bruising May 17 primary. At the same time, Fetterman, Pennsylvania’s lieutenant governor, easily bested his opponents — even though he had just suffered a life-threatening stroke from which he’s still recovering.
Fetterman leads in nearly every poll, and by double digits in some surveys, prompting Republicans to train their fire on him to keep Democrats from flipping the Senate seat that Republican Pat Toomey is giving up.
The incident happened nine years ago when Fetterman was mayor of the Pittsburgh-area town of Braddock. He said he heard what he thought was gunfire, saw a man running away, chased him down with his shotgun and detained him until police arrived. The jogger, Chris Miyares, was found at the time to have committed no crime. He is now incarcerated for an unrelated crime, and he recently told The Philadelphia Inquirer that he both forgives and supports Fetterman.
Fetterman has acknowledged he made a mistake, but he hasn't offered a full-throated apology, concerning grassroots activists like the Rev. Mark Kelly Tyler, a top Philadelphia Democratic organizer who helped turn out Black voters in big numbers to aid President Joe Biden 2020 victory in the state.
“I expected this ad as sure as the sun rises in the east and sets in the west,” said Tyler, who predicted this spring that Republicans would weaponize the issue against Fetterman to keep Black voters at home.
About 11% of the state’s voters are Black. To win in the evenly divided swing state, Democrats often rely on maximizing their turnout, especially in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.
A recent poll from Franklin & Marshall College suggested that while Fetterman led Oz by as much as 13 percentage points overall, the percentage of nonwhite voters who had no preference was double that of white voters — a sign of a lack of intensity that could spell trouble for Fetterman, said the college’s pollster, Berwood Yost.
“When we were interviewing for our poll, people in Philly just didn’t seem all that energized or engaged with the race,” Yost said. “I expect the race to tighten.”
In a written statement to NBC News on behalf of the Fetterman campaign, state Sen. Vincent Hughes, who represents a west Philadelphia district, criticized Oz as "an out of touch millionaire."
"While Oz spends his time in his mansions in New Jersey, John Fetterman was the three term mayor of Braddock, a majority black town, and has worked hand in hand with the black community for years," Hughes said. "Black voters are excited to vote for John because of his long record, and because they know he will fight for them in Washington.”
Fetterman’s Democratic opponents in the primary, state Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta and former U.S. Rep. Conor Lamb, who have since endorsed him, criticized him during the primary for his behavior at the time.
Kenyatta said the political dynamic has changed since the primary as inflation has eased and Democrats and women have become more engaged now that the Supreme Court has eliminated federal protections for abortion, which Oz has called “murder.”
At the same time, Kenyatta said, Oz can’t escape his association with the Republican gubernatorial nominee, Doug Mastriano, a far-right candidate who was photographed in 2017 dressed as a Confederate soldier when he was on the faculty of the Army War College.
“Voters see who the radical party is,” Kenyatta said.