Democratic Lt. Gov. John Fetterman and Republican Mehmet Oz are set to face off on Tuesday evening in the first and only debate of the Pennsylvania Senate race.
The race is one of a handful that will decide control of the upper chamber and the debate itself is seen as particularly consequential as Oz gains on Fetterman and the lieutenant governor seeks to dispel concerns about his health after a stroke earlier this year.
The debate, hosted by WHTM in Harrisburg, Pa., will be aired nationwide on NewsNation from 8-9 p.m. Eastern. Both WHTM and NewsNation are owned by Nexstar, which also owns The Hill.
Here are five things to watch for in Tuesday’s Pennsylvania Senate debate in Harrisburg:
Does Fetterman’s health impact his debate performance?
Fetterman’s recovery from a stroke he suffered just before the primary has been closely watched and all eyes will be on him Tuesday to see whether the lingering symptoms affect his performance.
It’s been widely known the Democratic nominee uses a closed captioning system to conduct interviews with reporters, which his campaign says is to make up for auditory processing issues but does not indicate any cognitive problems. But an NBC News interview with Fetterman earlier this month that showed what the system looked like drew scrutiny from his critics, particularly after NBC’s Dasha Burns, who conducted the interview, said it wasn’t clear Fetterman could understand the “small talk” without captioning.
Fetterman will use the system onstage at the debate, a first for a televised Senate debate.
Last week, Fetterman’s doctor released a letter saying the candidate is in good health and “has no work restrictions and can work full duty in public office.”
“He spoke intelligently without cognitive deficits. His speech was normal and he continues to exhibit symptoms of an auditory processing disorder which can come across as hearing difficulty. Occasional words he will ‘miss,’ which seems like he doesn’t hear the word but it is actually not processed properly,” Fetterman’s doctor, Clifford Chen, wrote. “His hearing of sound such as music is not affected.”
How does Oz navigate Fetterman’s health?
Democrats and Fetterman’s allies have conceded that Oz, who has years of experience in television, has the upper hand in the debate. But they also say voters’ perceptions of Oz’s performance could depend in part on how the Republican nominee conducts himself in regard to Fetterman’s health.
“The TV studio is Oz’s comfort zone. This guy is a media-savvy performer who literally built his career (and his fortune) by playing to the cameras as a daytime TV host,” Fetterman’s campaign said in a memo on Monday. “He hosted his scammy talk show for 13 seasons, filming over 2,000 episodes where he hawked miracle cures and magic diet pills to prey on hard-working Americans.”
Oz’s campaign faced criticism in August after an aide mocked Fetterman over his stroke.
Republicans and Oz’s allies say the candidate needs to show compassion toward Fetterman while attacking his record as lieutenant governor. Last week, Oz’s campaign released a statement responding to the letter, saying it was “good news that John Fetterman’s doctor gave him a clean bill of health.”
“The bad news is that John Fetterman still supports releasing convicted murderers out on the streets and has zero explanation for why he didn’t pay his taxes 67 times,” Oz’s campaign said. “And now that he apparently is healthy, he can debate for 90 minutes, start taking live questions from voters and reporters, and do a second debate now too.”
Does Oz zero in on crime and the economy?
Republican candidates in close races across the country have focused in on crime and inflation and Oz, who has seen his poll numbers rise in recent months, is no exception.
On Monday, Oz’s campaign rolled out a six-point plan to fight crime, which included stopping drug crimes, smart sentencing reform, increasing resources for safer streets, prosecuting crime, victims and users relief, and reducing crime in prisons.
The Republican has taken aim at Fetterman’s record on clemency as lieutenant governor, painting him as a soft-on-crime leader. Oz and his outside allies have run a number of ads drawing attention to cases Fetterman oversaw as head of the state pardons board.
GOP Senate nominees in other battleground states have sought to pivot to crime in their own debates and it is likely Oz will try to do the same.
Oz will also likely work to tie Fetterman and his Democratic allies to rising inflation and gas prices as well. The Republican’s campaign has pledged to cut taxes for working families and lower health care costs, while Fetterman has emphasized strengthening the working class and fighting corporate greed.
Oz’s attacks on Fetterman’s record on crime have arguably made the most headlines recently, but it’s the economy that has proven to be the top issue for Pennsylvania voters. A Monmouth University poll released earlier this month found that 87 percent of Pennsylvania voters see jobs, the economy and the cost of living as “extremely or very important to them this election.”
Will Fetterman’s attacks on abortion stick?
While Oz has zeroed in on crime as a top issue, Fetterman has spent quite a bit of time hitting Oz over abortion, particularly over his stance on Sen. Lindsey Graham’s (R-S.C.) proposed nationwide 15-week abortion ban.
Democrats in other high-stakes Senate races have also employed the attack line, painting their GOP opponents as extreme on the issue in the wake of the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade. Numerous Democratic Senate candidates have used the issue against Republicans in their own televised Senate debates this month. The topic stands to galvanize the Democratic base and abortion rights supporters, and even attract independent and swing voters from areas like Philadelphia’s suburbs. Fetterman held a rally for more than 3,000 attendees in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, in September where he addressed the issue, vowing to be the “51st vote for abortion rights.”
However, a divide has emerged among Democrats over how much the party’s candidates should focus on abortion as opposed to the economy in the closing days of their campaigns and whether continuing to talk about abortion is an effective strategy when numerous polls show the economy and crime outranking it as a top issue.
Will Biden, Trump play role?
Like other Senate candidates this cycle, Fetterman and Oz have worked to tie each other to President Biden and former President Trump throughout the campaign.
On Monday, Fetterman’s campaign rolled out a statement on recent reporting from Rolling Stone, which says Trump is pushing Pennsylvania lawmakers to repeal a 2019 no-excuse mail-in voting law. The reporting also detailed how Trump would reportedly plan to challenge election results in the state.
“It’s clear that Donald Trump, Dr. Oz, and the GOP will do whatever it takes to try and steal this race on Election Night. Trump has already said he ‘needs’ people like Oz in office to challenge the 2024 election,” said Fetterman spokesperson Joe Calvello. “Trump is trying to steal the 2022 election for Oz so that Trump can steal the 2024 election for himself.”
On the other side of the aisle, Oz has worked to tie Fetterman to Biden’s policies on a host of issues including the economy, crime and energy.
“Joe Biden and John Fetterman would rather rely on other countries than open up our energy production – as PA’s next Senator, I will always support American energy,” Oz tweeted last week.
Biden and Trump have hit the campaign trail for Fetterman and Oz, respectively, in Pennsylvania. In September, Trump held a rally for Oz and the state’s other down-ballot GOP candidates. Last week, Biden made a campaign stop for Fetterman and stumped for him at a fundraiser.
The latest Emerson College-The Hill poll shows Biden with a 43 percent approval rating and a 51 percent disapproval rating. In a head-to-head match-up, Trump leads Biden 46 percent to 45 percent, well within the poll’s 3-point margin of error.