Pennsylvania Republican Senate candidate Mehmet Oz is going on the offensive against Democratic rival John Fetterman after weeks of falling victim to Fetterman’s robust digital operation and trailing in the polls.
This week marked a shift in Oz’s strategy as his campaign increased pressure on Fetterman to participate in televised debates. Meanwhile, a pro-Oz group ran an ad targeting Fetterman over a 2013 incident in which he pulled a gun on a black jogger he suspected of a crime.
His new assault on Fetterman comes as the environment in Pennsylvania and across the country increasingly favors Senate Democrats, with several electoral handicappers recently moving the Keystone State Senate race into the “toss- up”.
Real Clear Politics’ latest polling average shows Fetterman leading Oz by 6.5 points, but Oz allies say the Republican will likely close that gap like many candidates do after Labor Day.
“It’s full steam ahead,” said a Republican national agent. “I think the change in Dr. Oz is that everyone is rallying around him and Fetterman can’t hide behind Twitter anymore.”
Race week coverage was largely dominated by back-and-forth between the Oz and Fetterman teams regarding televised debate scheduling ahead of Election Day.
Oz called on Fetterman to participate in a series of debates starting this month. On Tuesday, the Republican Senate candidate used a joint press conference with retired Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) to invite the lieutenant governor to debate the famous doctor. The next day, Fetterman told Politico in an interview that he’s committed to attending a debate against Oz “sometime in mid to late October” and on a “major television station” in Pennsylvania.
“We’re absolutely going to debate Dr. Oz, and it was really always our intention to do so,” Fetterman told the outlet. “It was just about solving some of the lingering issues with stroke, auditory processing, and we’re going to be able to fix that.”
Allies of Oz framed the interview as a concession by Fetterman after Oz punched him for participating in the debate. They also point to the fact that Fetterman was absent from a primary debate that took place in early April.
“Before John Fetterman suffered a stroke, he also had a fear of debating his opponents, especially in primaries,” the GOP national operative said.
Allies of Oz argue that a debate held in mid-to-late October will be too late for most voters who want to vote early. Fetterman’s allies say the date works well given that the election is on most voters’ minds in mid-October, as opposed to a debate in September.
Republicans also point to what they say is a natural advantage for the former TV doctor.
“He has a huge TV experience and that experience is in an interactive setting, so I think he’s used to that,” said Keith Naughton, a Republican strategist with experience working on campaigns in Pennsylvania. “The key for him is to have good practice so he can handle some of the aggressive questioning that he’s not used to.”
Democrats, meanwhile, argue that the Oz camp is essentially using back and forth during the debates to distract from what they say are bigger issues with the Republican nominee.
“It’s important to remember that he’s trying to get out of a pretty big hole he’s been in after the summer he’s had,” a Democratic national agent said. “If one issue has defined the race, it’s ‘Mehmet Oz isn’t from Pennsylvania and doesn’t get Pennsylvanians’.”
Fetterman’s campaign over the summer launched an aggressive digital campaign portraying Oz as out of touch and unfamiliar with the state. In July, they enlisted former “Jersey Shore” cast member Nicole “Snooki” LaValle to highlight the Oz residency issue in a campaign video. Fetterman also started a petition last month to add Oz to the New Jersey Hall of Fame. Fetterman and the Democrats also hammered Oz on its properties.
“Each week of this campaign has brought new revelations about Mehmet Oz that put him on the defensive, and they all came to a conclusion: he’s an impostor, an out-of-touch millionaire who doesn’t understand the concerns of The Families. workers of Pennsylvania,” said Patrick Burgwinkle, spokesman for the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee. “The only reason he’s running for the Senate is to serve himself and his multi-millionaire friends, and that’s why he will be rejected in November.”
Fetterman supporters also pointed to a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette editorial board op-ed on Friday calling on Oz to stop attacking Fetterman during the proceedings.
“Now that Mr. Fetterman has thrown down the gauntlet, it’s time for Mr. Oz to call off his attack dogs,” wrote the newspaper’s editorial board.
The editorial marks a notable shift in tone for the publication, which had argued that Oz had “legitimate concerns” about Fetterman’s health amid the debate.
“If Mr. Fetterman is not well enough to debate his opponent, it raises serious concerns about his ability to serve as a United States Senator,” the article said.
While plans for a debate have yet to be set in stone, most observers seem to agree that Pennsylvanians shouldn’t count on seeing Fetterman and Oz on a debate stage together more than once.
“I expected them to do one and that was it,” Naughton said.