Democratic candidate John Fetterman has a path to win the Pennsylvania Senate race despite a halting performance at last week’s debate with Republican candidate Mehmet Oz that raised questions about his health months after a stroke he suffered in May, say strategists and experts.
The race has tightened significantly since mid-September, when Fetterman’s lead over Oz swelled to as much as 10 points in a Marist poll, but Fetterman still has Democratic voters solidly behind him in Pennsylvania, a state where there were 666,000 more registered Democrats than Republicans in 2020.
Senate Republican strategists think Fetterman’s difficulties at the debate effectively ended his chances of winning a race that has trended toward Oz over the past five weeks.
“Hard to imagine any Pennsylvania voter who tuned in for that debate saw Fetterman as their next United States senator,” said one Senate GOP strategist.
“I think we’re going to win there. Public polling is starting to move in Oz’s direction,” the source added.
Fetterman at times had difficulty finding his words and needed to use a closed captioning system because of an auditory processing issue related to this stroke. He repeated his statements at times during the debate, including in a response to a question about fracking.
Some Democrats have questioned whether Fetterman should have gone through with the debate, but the candidate in an interview this week said he thought it was important to have done so.
“I just always understood that it wasn’t going to be easy. I am five months into recovery from that, but I thought it was important that I show up and I did it. And at the end of the day, we did, I think, make some important points,” he told CNN’s Don Lemon.
Two polls conducted by InsiderAdvantage and Wick Insights since the debate show Oz now with a narrow lead over Fetterman though critics say the pollsters oversampled Republicans and their results should be viewed skeptically.
The InsiderAdvantage survey conducted on Oct. 26 showed Oz with a 3-point lead while the Wick Insights poll conducted Oct. 26 and 27 showed Oz up by two points.
Poll watchers expected a new survey to come out from Muhlenberg College on Wednesday that will shed more light on the tightness of the race.
A Muhlenberg College poll of 420 likely voters conducted from Sept. 13 to Sept. 16 showed Fetterman leading Oz 49 percent to 44 percent.
Independent experts and strategists in both parties say the Pennsylvania Senate race is still a toss-up and that Fetterman has a good chance of winning despite the debate.
“It was, to put it mildly, a weak performance,” said Terry Madonna, a longtime nonpartisan Pennsylvania pollster and senior fellow at Millersville University.
But Madonna said Fetterman’s “base of support is very firm” and predicted there will “be an empathetic reaction among his base of supporters.”
“Now the big question is does Oz pick up support, especially among Republicans and independents? One of the reasons he trailed Fetterman is support among Republicans was not as strong as Fetterman’s among Democrats,” he added, describing the lingering effect of Oz’s bruising primary against hedge fund CEO David McCormick.
Berwood Yost, the director of the Franklin & Marshall College Poll, said he’s looking forward to the results of the Muhlenberg College poll on Wednesday and expects it to show “the race is close.”
“It’s pretty clear that Republicans should be having a field day here given how dissatisfied people are and in our poll we showed a 5-point generic ballot advantage for Republicans,” he said.
Despite the favorable environment for Republicans, Oz has failed to capitalize because of the success Fetterman and Democrats had defining him early in the race.
“The fundamental problem that Oz has is perceptions that he’s viewed unfavorably — minus 19 in our poll — and also the fact that about half of Republicans wish they had a different Republican to vote for,” Yost said. “It’s possible you may seem movement because of that debate but I would imagine that if there is some movement that it probably settles back” to where it was before.
“Historically, those polling bumps aren’t sustained,” he said.
Yost said he doesn’t think the debate was a fatal blow for Fetterman because there’s a lack of consensus on what the candidate’s jumbled syntax means about his fitness for office.
Some voters say “he’s probably not capable” while others say “he’s pretty courageous for doing this” and some voters more sympathetic to Fetterman argue the debate format doesn’t play to his strengths and he is better in other situations, Yost explained.
Oz didn’t emerge from the debate unscathed either.
Democratic operatives pounced on his statement that local political leaders should have a say in deciding abortion rights.
“I want women, doctors, local political leaders, letting the democracy that’s always allowed our nation to thrive to put the best ideas forward so states can decide for themselves,” he said on stage.
Democrats recast that to claim that the decision whether to have an abortion should be made by a woman, her doctor and local political leaders.
“Arguably you could suggest in some ways that the biggest mistake made in that debate was by Oz, not Fetterman, in term of his comment on abortion,” Yost said.
Strategists in both parties say the percentage of undecided voters who watched the debate was too small to make much difference in the outcome of the race. They say what’s more important in how the theatrics of the debate feeds into the ongoing narrative about the candidates and the campaign.
“It felt like there was an enormous amount of discussion about the debate in advance like it was the fulcrum of the campaign and it’s just not the case. The number of undecided voters who are going to watch a U.S. Senate debate two weeks out is so miniscule that it can’t even be measured,” said J.J. Balaban, a Philadelphia-based Democratic strategist.
Some Republican strategists acknowledge that the Pennsylvania Senate contest remains very much a race even though some other advisors in their party are ready to declare it game over for Fetterman.
“It was just uncomfortable to watch but I think the reality of the situation is that unfortunately debates just don’t have the impact that they maybe had years ago,” said Vince Galko, who served as executive director of the Pennsylvania state Republican Party in 2005 and as deputy director of George W. Bush’s 2004 presidential campaign in the state.
He noted that a large number of Pennsylvanians have already cast their ballots through early voting and people who watch debates are more likely “partisans” who “already know who they’re going to vote for anyway.”
But he argued that two things play in Oz’s favor.
“Any undecided voter who watched that debate can’t help but walk away thinking only one of the guys there was up to the task of being a U.S. senator and the amount of coverage, post-[debate] coverage was remarkable,” Galko added. “I don’t remember a non-presidential debate getting as much coverage, not only in the state but nationally as well.”