Democrats in Pennsylvania are scrambling to flip the script on a less-than-stellar performance from Senate candidate John Fetterman during the state’s first and only televised debate and throwing the kitchen sink at pushing him over the finish line.
With just over a week until Election Day, they are hoping Fetterman can hang on in a state that’s emerged as the center of Democrats’ hopes of retaining control of the Senate.
The conversation immediately after last week’s debate largely surrounded Fetterman’s struggles on stage due to lingering symptoms from a stroke earlier this year and questions about whether he should have debated at all. But Democrats and Fetterman’s campaign quickly turned to Republican nominee Mehmet Oz’s comments on abortion and Fetterman’s impressive post-debate fundraising in a bid to reassure anxious Democrats and appeal to skeptical swing voters.
“There [are] two choices: We rally around or you abandon, and nobody has abandoned John,” said T.J. Rooney, the former chairman of the Pennsylvania Democratic Party.
“It’s caused voters, and I can’t say for better or worse, to lean in more and want to know more,” he continued.
Fetterman’s campaign announced on Wednesday that it raised a whopping $2 million in less than 24 hours after the debate, with $1 million of the haul coming during the three hours after the forum.
Democrats and the campaign are also zeroing in on Oz’s remarks during the debate, particularly his comments saying that the decision to have an abortion should be made between “women, doctors, and local political leaders.”
Fetterman’s campaign cut an ad hitting Oz over the remarks less than a day after the debate.
President Biden also got in on the attack line against Oz, tweeting on Wednesday, “If Oz gets his way, where does this end?”
The national Democratic campaign apparatus is also working to go on the offensive against Oz in the days after the debate, rolling out an ad on Friday hitting the Republican over medical views and products he promoted on his show prior to running for office.
Additionally, Fetterman got a boost from Biden and Vice President Harris, who made a rare joint visit to Philadelphia on Friday to campaign for the Democratic Senate candidate. Biden is slated to return with former President Obama to campaign for Fetterman on Nov. 5.
Many Republicans are skeptical.
“It’s not accidental that this terrible debate performance that only renewed questions of whether or not he’s able to serve in office happened well after early voting had started,” said Doug Heye, a veteran Republican strategist, arguing that Fetterman’s campaign was not transparent enough in the months after his stroke.
“[They’ve] backed Democrats into this position of saying you either want the majority or not and this is how you get it,” Heye added.
Oz’s campaign also announced on Friday it would be airing the debate on a mobile billboard outside of Fetterman’s campaign event with Biden and Harris on Friday evening.
“There was a clear contrast on the debate stage this week – John Fetterman completely failed to defend any element of his radical record, like his opposition to fracking, his support for releasing convicted murderers, and his plan to raise taxes in the worst inflation in American history,” said Oz’s communications director Brittany Yanick.
Democrats are also still privately expressing concerns and worrying Fetterman’s performance could mark a turning point in an already tight race.
“You can’t pretend you didn’t see what you saw. You can’t wish it or explain it away. You have to dig in and deal with it. It’s going to mean they’ll turn the heat up with Oz,” one strategist told The Hill on Tuesday.
Publicly, and with the benefit of days passing, however, Democrats say the situation is less dire.
“Was there some handwringing on Wednesday morning? Sure there was,” Rooney said. “But it didn’t result in disillusionment, it resulted in a doubling down.”
One Pennsylvania Democratic operative acknowledged the worry, but cautioned that most of the concern was not taking place on the ground in Pennsylvania.
“The reality is Democrats love to worry and freak out. That is who we are,” the operative said. “But I do think that worrying exists a lot more in political and media circles than it does in real life.”
Little polling has been done since the debate, but an Insider Advantage poll conducted on Oct. 26 among 750 voters showed Oz leading Fetterman by 3 points. Fetterman’s once-commanding lead had been narrowing even before the debate, and the RealClearPolitics average now shows Fetterman leading Oz by just 0.3 points.
Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) appeared to brush off concerns about the debate’s impact in Pennsylvania while saying Democrats were “going downhill in Georgia” during a conversation with President Biden that was caught on a hot mic on Thursday.
“It looks like the debate didn’t hurt us too much in Pennsylvania … so that’s good,” Schumer told the president.
Fetterman’s allies have sought to in part frame the debate over his performance as a disabilities rights issue, arguing that the Democrat’s health issue is not uncommon among Americans.
“I think that most people are just pretty fundamentally decent and are more willing to cut people some slack and give them some time to recovery,” said one Democratic strategist.
Fetterman, himself, has used the issue to connect with voters, most recently at a rally in Pittsburgh the day after the debate.
“How many of you have had your own personal major health challenge?” Fetterman asked. “What about your parents? What about perhaps a grandparent and, God forbid, even a child?” Fetterman asked the crowd.
Democrats are also pointing to Oz’s abortion remarks at the debate, which they say are aiding a Fetterman campaign that has put abortion rights front and center.
“That was the moment of the debate that is clipped now playing everywhere,” said Joe Calvello, a spokesperson for the Fetterman campaign. “This isn’t going to fly with suburban voters out here in the Collar Counties.”
The other Democratic operative told The Hill that they didn’t believe anyone predicted that there would be as convenient a comment from Oz.
“The idea that a clip that easy to use and that effective and that useful for us was going to happen, I don’t think anyone expected that,” they said.
Heye also said that the comments amounted to an unforced error from Oz.
“Bad comment,” he said. “You have two different arguments. Essentially Democrats were then saying Dr. Oz should not be a senator. Republicans were asking the question of whether or not Fetterman could be a senator. One should not serve, one cannot serve. And that answer allowed that duality to happen.”
But there are still questions over whether abortion will be a salient enough issue to win over swing voters ahead of Nov. 8 as the cost of goods and fuel continues to rise.
A Monmouth University poll released earlier this month found that 82 percent of voters said that inflation was “extremely or very important,” while abortion came in seventh on the list of concerns, with 56 percent of voters saying it was “extremely or very important.”
“For those voters that find themselves undecided, I think that’s a decisionmaker,” Rooney said, referring to the economy. “You can’t allow your opponent to fill in the blanks for you and I do agree with the idea and the belief and the notion that the economy is going to determine how those thoughtful men and women are going to vote and we need to have some meat on the bone to offset the attacks that the other side will offer.”
Other Democrats argue that Fetterman is aggressively talking about rising costs, pointing to Fetterman’s attacks on oil companies and corporations.
Fetterman, himself, addressed the issue on MSNBC’s “The Reid Out” on Thursday.
“We all know that inflation hurts Pennsylvania families,” Fetterman said, referencing record profits from oil companies. “There has never been an oil company that Dr. Oz can take a look at and not want to swipe right about. He is never going to be the kind of senator to stand up and push back about the greed and the price gauging.”