Is Dr. Oz done? Republicans still see a path to a comeback against Fetterman

David Catanese
McClatchy Washington Bureau (TNS)

Mehmet Oz remains behind John Fetterman in the race for Pennsylvania’s open U.S. Senate seat 10 weeks until Election Day.

But Republicans now see seeds for a potential rebound against the Democratic front-runner, which is rooted in an unrelenting advertising assault on a record they see as largely unchallenged and questions about his ability to perform senatorial duties as Fetterman continues to recover from a severe stroke he suffered last spring.

“The feeling on the Republican side is Oz has gained his footing back over the last couple of weeks,” said Chris Nicholas, a longtime GOP consultant in the state.

Nicholas believes Fetterman is stonewalling a commitment to debating Oz due to the perilous political risk an hour of sustained live scrutiny poses to him. Fetterman’s campaign has indicated the candidate is in speech therapy and his public appearances have shown the lingering effects of his malady.

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“I think voters are moving from how his medical condition affects him to how it affects them,” Nicholas said of the lieutenant governor.

Republicans – in Pennsylvania and Washington – concede Oz is trailing but see a pair of polls released last week by Emerson College and the Trafalgar Group as a relatively accurate picture of his deficit: 4 points.

The Senate Leadership Fund, the Mitch McConnell-aligned GOP super PAC, is now in the second full week of its $34 million advertising commitment to bombarding Fetterman. The effectiveness of the late August TV blitz will be instructive in reassessing Oz’s chances post-Labor Day, when they hope to see Fetterman’s favorability ratings depreciated.

“If Fetterman’s only up a couple that’s bad news for John Fetterman. He needed a bigger gap,” said Peter Towey, a Republican operative who managed Sen. Pat Toomey’s successful 2016 campaign. “This is going to be Oz’s race to lose come the fall. The spending is starting, people are still learning about Fetterman.”

Oz was among three Republican candidates hosted by McConnell at a fundraiser in Louisville Friday. Speaking to reporters Monday, the Senate GOP leader conveyed that he chose Oz, North Carolina Senate nominee Ted Budd and Georgia Senate contender Herschel Walker because they have “the best shot at winning.”

With a 50-50 Senate, every race on the 2022 map is a majority maker.

“I’m very confident,” McConnell said of Oz’s chances. “I don’t think I would’ve had him here if I didn’t think that.”

OZ’S ATTACK PLAN

Crime is the issue that Oz and his Republican allies are wielding most aggressively against Fetterman, viewing it as his biggest weakness and an entrypoint to branding Fetterman as a radical more broadly.

In 2020, Fetterman signaled agreement with an expert who said “we could reduce our prison population by a third and not make anyone less safe in Pennsylvania,” though he’s not specifically proposed implementing such a policy.

SLF’s second TV ad, unleashed on Tuesday, featured a comment by Fetterman as chairman of the state’s Board of Pardons. “Fetterman says he’s trying to get as many criminals out of prison as he can,” the spot blares.

Also on Tuesday, Oz’s campaign unveiled an “Inmates for Fetterman” website with an accompanying video accusing the Democrat of wanting to release murderers from prison. In an indication of the saliency of the concerted attack, the Fetterman campaign responded with its own 30-second TV commercial defending his record on crime.

‘COULD SHATTER EVERYTHING’

Republicans also view Fetterman’s refusal to commit to debates as permission to raise his health issue, insinuating that he either doesn’t want to debate Oz on issues or that he’s not up to the task mentally or physically.

A solid debate performance by Fetterman could put the issue to rest, but a shaky one – or an indelible mistake on live statewide television – “could shatter everything for him,” as one GOP operative put it.

Malcolm Kenyatta, who ran for the Democratic Senate nomination himself, said he doesn’t have “any concern about (Fetterman’s) ability to be on the stump campaigning for himself and Democrats up and down the ballot.” But asked if Fetterman should debate Oz, Kenyatta replied that the campaign didn’t need his advice on that question.

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The Fetterman campaign informed Pittsburgh affiliate KDKA-TV on Tuesday that its proposal for a Sept. 6 debate was not workable.

In 2016, Sen. Pat Toomey and his Democratic opponent, Katie McGinty, agreed to two debates.

Oz still has considerable work to do improving his own image with Pennsylvania voters, a consequence of the $20 million onslaught Dave McCormick’s super PAC unleashed on him during their vicious primary. A majority of 56% still view the celebrity physician unfavorably, while just 38% hold Fetterman in an unfavorable light, according to Emerson College.

And while Oz has been aggressively hitting the trail, there’s still some grumbling from local GOP activists about his campaign’s responsiveness.

Arnie McClure, an 11-year chairman of Huntingdon County, said he’s never experienced such difficulty in dealing with the campaigns of Oz and Doug Mastriano, the Republican nominee for governor.

“We had five or six county chairs in central PA ready to put an event together and raise money for the two candidates and we could not get a date out of either campaign. Get us a date,” McClure said. “And we’re Republican votes!”

Oz campaigned in Huntingdon County on Aug. 5 at a restaurant where he said, “if you want to understand the values of Pennsylvania, you come to the middle of Pennsylvania.”

Tessa Duvall contributed reporting.