Pennsylvania’s Senate race — a contest that’s poised to help shape the balance of power in Washington over the next two years — is defying national trends and becoming a bare-knuckle fight over state roots between two idiosyncratic candidates.
Democrat John Fetterman, the 6-foot-8 lieutenant governor, has largely kept out of the public eye for two months as he recovers from a stroke. He hasn’t appeared at a public event since May and has instead leaned on viral memes featuring reality-TV star “Snooki” from "Jersey Shore" and aerial advertising to belittle his Republican opponent as a carpetbagger from neighboring New Jersey.
Meanwhile, Mehmet Oz, the ultra-wealthy celebrity doctor endorsed by former President Donald Trump, is seeking to move past an ugly primary and persuade working class Pennsylvanians that he cares about the issues keeping them up at night. He's also seeking to depict Fetterman as too left-leaning for the Keystone State.
For now, Fetterman appears to have the upper hand. He's also somewhat of an anomaly as a Democratic Senate candidate who isn't an incumbent but still holds a comfortable lead in the polls in a highly competitive state.
Fetterman led Oz in two statewide polls in recent weeks — by 9 percentage points in a USA Today/Suffolk poll, and by 6 points in a survey conducted jointly by the Republican firm Fabrizio, Lee & Associates and the Democratic firm Impact Research. A common theme in the two polls: Oz has a perilously high unfavorable rating.
In an effort to counter that image, the Oz campaign has accused Fetterman of hiding from Pennsylvanians, insisting that the election will be decided on issues like gas and grocery prices — not internet posts.
“Fetterman hasn’t faced voters in months — but he did have time for a family vacation to the Jersey Shore,” Oz communications director Brittany Yanick said in an email. “Now that he’s back, John Fetterman can’t hide from voters forever.”
Fetterman communications director Joe Calvello responded: “John just visited — Dr. Oz still basically lives there.”
“Not all of us have a $48 million mansion in Palm Beach, Florida with their own private beachfront like Oz does,” Calvello said in an email, calling Oz “an out-of-touch TV celebrity and multimillionaire from New Jersey” with “no real ties to Pennsylvania.”
Fetterman leads Oz in fundraising
On the fundraising front, Fetterman has brought in $26.1 million, with $5.5 million cash on hand. Oz has raised just $4.7 million and loaned the campaign $14.3 million, with only $1.1 million cash on hand. Since their primary victories in May, Fetterman has spent $1.7 million on TV ads. Oz has spent $18,000 on radio and digital spots, but nothing on TV.
Those advantages, even as Fetterman campaigns from home, have eased concerns among Democrats after their nominee's initial lack of transparency sparked fears that he wasn’t up to the task. He has since disclosed more information and is gradually increasing his presence at campaign events, making an unannounced appearance to speak to volunteers followed by plans to attend a Thursday fundraiser in Philadelphia.
He gave a remote interview Wednesday to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, where he addressed speech habits that developed after his stroke.
“I might miss a word every now and then in a conversation, or I might slur two words. Even then, I think that’s infrequent,” he told the newspaper. He said his “hearing is still a little bit not perfect” but that he has no limits physically and walks 4 to 5 miles every day.
The York County native, who was mayor of the small, economically hollowed out town of Braddock near Pittsburgh, said he's “absolutely, 100 percent able to run fully and to win.”
Fetterman's campaign is not letting reporters into Thursday's fundraiser — or anywhere near him, for the time being — and didn’t offer details about when he will hold his next public event.
“John will be on the campaign trail very very soon. He is about 93% back to full strength and getting better,” Calvello said in response to emailed questions from NBC News, adding that he works with campaign staff “daily” and talks to senators in Washington “regularly” about the race.
Fetterman has kept in touch with Democratic members of Pennsylvania's congressional delegation.
“I’ve spoken with him multiple times recently, one by video chat. [His wife] Gisele was on, too. He looks great — looks thinner, but very well,” said Rep. Madeleine Dean. “I’m very proud of him. He’s going to be our next senator.”
Sen. Bob Casey said in an interview that Fetterman is “in a very strong position already, although it’s too early and you shouldn’t assume anything.” He cited Fetterman’s dominant primary victory amid “deep and potentially lasting divisions” on the GOP side after Oz defeated businessman David McCormick and far-right Kathy Barnette in an acrimonious primary.
'Crazier than you think'
Yanick downplayed the fundraising gap between the two candidates, vowing that the Oz campaign “will have ample resources to get its message out.”
“Voters need to know John Fetterman is crazier than you think — with plans to socialize medicine, release one third of all prisoners and accelerate inflation with more spending. Dr. Oz is the change we need,” she said.
Fetterman, who supported Sen. Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign, has embraced an unorthodox set of issues in his Senate bid — from abolishing the filibuster to raising the minimum wage and combating gun violence, to breaking with his party on immigration and mask mandates.
It's an attempt to win disaffected Trump voters, and his campaign is keeping up the criticism of Oz.
“In Washington, he won’t fight for us, because he frankly does not give a shit about the people of Pennsylvania,” Calvello said.
Fetterman’s attacks are also giving Democrats more ammunition to criticize Oz.
“Let’s be honest, we want somebody who is from Pennsylvania, not somebody who’s from Hollywood that’s gonna pretend that he knows what he’s talking about” said Shelbie Stromyer, a 59-year-old Democrat who ran unsuccessfully for state Senate in 2020 in an overwhelmingly pro-Trump section of northwestern Pennsylvania.
Rep. Dan Meuser, R-Pa., asked about Fetterman's attacks on Oz as a New Jerseyan, noted that he backed McCormick in the primary but defended Oz's ties to Pennsylvania.
"He has lived in New Jersey — meaning Oz. He went to the University of Pennsylvania. His wife's from Pennsylvania. He wants to represent Pennsylvania," Meuser said in an interview. "To to me really matters is: Where are you from on national security? Where are you on domestic energy? Where are you on the border? ... Oz is on the right side of it."
Oz has also been in touch with the man he’s seeking to replace: Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., who is retiring after two terms. Toomey cuts a unique profile as one of the most fiscally conservative members of Congress — but he’s a Trump critic, voting to convict him on impeachment charges of inciting the Jan. 6 insurrection.
“I’m fully supportive of Dr. Oz. I haven’t put it in like a formal declaration, but there’s no there’s no secret about it,” Toomey said, adding that he and Oz have “spoken a number of times,” including about strategy in the Senate race.
Toomey said Oz is “extremely intelligent, very thoughtful” and accomplished. “He’s very humble. And when we’ve spoken, he’s been very willing to consider advice,” he said.