(The Hill) — Democrats are salivating more than ever over a pickup opportunity in Pennsylvania’s closely watched Senate race as the Republican nominee and celebrity doctor Mehmet Oz grapples with increasingly negative headlines.
Democratic nominee John Fetterman has been battering Oz for months, but the Republican Senate nominee is going on offense, trying to turn around his campaign and keep the seat in GOP hands.
The latest war of words between the two candidates was over crudités, or raw vegetable trays. Fetterman’s campaign made fun of Oz for his French reference to the appetizer, prompting a senior communication adviser from Oz’s campaign to mock Fetterman for a stroke he suffered earlier this year.
For weeks, Fetterman’s campaign and Democrats have sought to amplify questions over Oz’s ties to Pennsylvania and his residency while painting a picture of an out-of-touch celebrity-turned-politician.
Recent polling suggests that Fetterman is benefitting from the race’s current dynamics, with the nonpartisan Cook Political Report shifting the contest from “toss-up” to “lean Democratic.”
“I think it presents an opportunity that nobody envisioned when the calendar turned to ’22,” said T.J. Rooney, the former chairman of the Pennsylvania Democratic Party. “But having said that, there’s still a lot of ground to cover.”
Recent polls have varied, with an Emerson College poll released on Monday showing Fetterman leading Oz 48 percent to 44 percent, and a separate Franklin and Marshall College poll released last week showing Fetterman leading Oz 76 percent to 62 percent.
“They’ve got reason to be optimistic, but I wouldn’t put Fetterman in office just yet,” said Keith Naughton, a Republican consultant with experience working in Pennsylvania.
“A lot of the Democratic optimism is based on a bunch of partisan polls that are just way out of line for some of the nonpartisan stuff,” he continued.
The race has been unique in that, while both candidates have been on and off the trail, much of the battle has been fought in the media. Fetterman took a three-month hiatus from the campaign trail earlier this year after he suffered a stroke in May. But his campaign was able to garner a considerable amount of buzz online.
In July, Fetterman’s campaign enlisted former “Jersey Shore” cast member Nicole “Snooki” LaValle to highlight the question of Oz’s residency in a campaign video. Fetterman also started a petition last month to add Oz to the New Jersey Hall of Fame.
“They were very smart with the Cameo videos from Snooki and Little Steven and all of that, and it’s a good message,” said national Republican strategist Doug Heye.
Fetterman’s campaign also garnered attention on Monday when he publicly urged President Joe Biden to move toward decriminalizing marijuana ahead of Biden’s visit to the state next week.
Additionally, Fetterman has led in the fundraising game, outraising Oz by $8.7 million during the second quarter. Many point out that Oz was still embroiled in a brutal GOP primary against David McCormick in May, which fell in the middle of the reporting period. And Republicans argue that Fetterman should have a better lead given his impressive fundraising numbers.
“John Fetterman had a spending advantage over the summer over Dr. Oz, and the fact that he’s only up a couple of points is bad news for him,” said Peter Towey, a Republican strategist with deep ties to Pennsylvania politics.
Republicans also point out that there have been flaws in Fetterman’s approach, arguing that it is too online and does not do a good enough job of reaching Pennsylvania voters.
“Ninety percent of people, everyday Pennsylvanians aren’t on Twitter,” Towey said. “John Fetterman’s Twitter campaign has done very little to improve his standing in the actual election results come November.”
Oz’s allies also point to his presence on the campaign trail in person as a plus. The celebrity doctor-turned-politician has also made a number of recent appearances on Fox News in an effort to rally the conservative base.
And Republican leadership seems to be seeking to boost Oz from the national level. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) told reporters in Kentucky on Monday that he believes Oz has “a great shot at winning.”
“I have great confidence. I think Oz has a great shot at winning,” McConnell said. “I don’t think I would have had him here if I didn’t think that.”
However, Fetterman has been making more frequent campaign stops since his return to the trail earlier this month. On Monday, Fetterman’s campaign touted weekend visits to Venango and Mercer Counties in rural Pennsylvania.
“Do you think Dr. Oz could get over 400 people out in Mercer County on a Sunday afternoon? Dr. Oz didn’t even know that Mercer County existed a year ago,” Fetterman said during one of the events.
Democrats also say they feel enthusiastic in the wake of recent legislation wins, including the Inflation Reduction Act.
“The good news is that because of some of the unprecedented victories that the president has achieved, we have stuff to talk about now,” Rooney said.
Democrats also point to abortion access as a potentially galvanizing issue, citing Kansas voters overwhelmingly rejecting an anti-abortion ballot initiative and Democrats like Pat Ryan in New York’s 19th Congressional District using it to gin up the base.
“Mehmet Oz supports banning abortion even in cases of rape or incest and has embraced other unpopular, toxic positions during his GOP primary,” said Patrick Burgwinkle, a senior communications strategist at the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. “Oz is a fraud and a scam artist who will do and say anything to help get rich or help himself, and that’s exactly why Pennsylvania voters will reject him in November.”
Oz said during the state’s Republican Senate primary that he is against abortion except in the cases of rape and incest or when the mother’s life is in jeopardy.
Republicans, on the other hand, say Fetterman is vulnerable due to the national mood, pointing to the state of the economy under Biden, as well as rising crime.
“The Democrats are trying to distract from John Fetterman’s desire to be the 51st vote for every bad policy that has made gas cost more, a gallon of milk cost more, every other cost of living go up, inflation be unchecked,” Towey said.
Looking ahead, questions have emerged about future debates between Oz and Fetterman. Oz has recently hit Fetterman for not committing to any future televised debate yet.
“The reason he’s hiding is pretty obvious: he’s lying about his health. Fetterman is not capable of debating, and he is unlikely to be able to stand in front of a camera to answer questions for longer than 10 minutes,” said Lizzie Litzow, deputy communications director at the National Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee.
Fetterman’s campaign has said that the Democrat is not opposed to debating Oz, but does not want to do it solely on the Republican’s terms.
“One candidate had a stroke 3 months ago, and the other is a professional television personality, so our eyes are wide open about whose strengths this plays to,” Fetterman’s spokesperson Joe Cavello, said last week. “Still, John is up for debating Oz — we’re not going to do this on Oz’s terms and timeline.”