Personality over Policy in the Pennsylvania Senate Race

 /  Nov. 5, 2022, 2:16 p.m.

John Fetterman addresses a crowd of supporters in Pittsburgh on September 5

Ed Gainey

John Fetterman addresses supporters in Pittsburgh on September 5

The race for the open U.S. Senate seat in Pennsylvania is one of the most hotly contested in the nation and could determine the balance of power in the Senate after the 2022 midterm elections. Unfortunately, policy issues have played a secondary role in the campaign, and this election is primarily about the candidates themselves – their personalities, experience, competence, and ability to represent Pennsylvanians in the U.S. Senate. Pennsylvania demonstrates two cross-cutting developments in U.S. politics - (1) state and local races are becoming more homogeneous and centered around national issues rather than community-specific matters, and (2) individual campaigns increasingly revolve around the personality and celebrity prowess of the candidates.

Entering the Race

The race for Senate in Pennsylvania began in October of 2020 when incumbent Republican Senator Pat Toomey announced that he would not be running for re-election. Over the following months, candidates threw their hats in the ring to run for their respective party’s nomination. On the Republican side, Jeff Bartos and Sean Parnell were early frontrunners, but Parnell dropped out after domestic abuse allegations surfaced. Shortly after, Mehmet Oz announced his candidacy, but quickly faced skepticism over his ties to Pennsylvania after living most of his life in New Jersey, in addition to criticism about his Turkish citizenship and Muslim religion. Later, former Bush official David McCormick entered the race but couldn’t beat a late surge from Oz following a Trump endorsement on April 10th. In the May 17th primary, Oz narrowly beat McCormick, winning by less than 1,000 votes over his main Republican rival. 

On the Democratic side, state legislator Malcolm Kenyatta and Lt. Governor John Fetterman entered the race early on. A few months later, Rep. Connor Lamb announced his candidacy, running as a moderate establishment candidate in contrast to Fetterman’s progressive populism. Fetterman won the primary in a landslide, winning a majority in every county in Pennsylvania and garnering 58.1% of the vote statewide. 

A Candidate-Centered Race

However, Fetterman was unable to give a victory speech on primary night. On May 15th, two days before the primary, he was hospitalized with a stroke. A few weeks later, Fetterman’s cardiologist released a letter, explaining that Fetterman suffered an ischemic stroke caused by atrial fibrillation and cardiomyopathy, two chronic heart conditions, and noted that he had implanted a pacemaker device in Fetterman. Since then, Fetterman has found a delicate balance between his stroke recovery and his Senate campaign, while addressing concerns about his long-term physical health. He has spoken at relatively few campaign rallies, and as a result, much of the campaign has played out over Twitter, garnering national attention with an unclear impact on Pennsylvanians’ voting decisions. He has also garnered attention for using live closed-captioning technology during media interviews, as his stroke damaged his ability to quickly process audio and visual cues. His critics portray his stroke, and other health concerns, as a liability that casts doubt on his fitness to serve in the Senate. Fetterman hopes that voters will relate to his health struggles, making him more appealing. Many Senators have faced health challenges while in office, but few have dealt with them so publicly during a campaign. The issue of Fetterman’s health is front-and-center in this race, but it’s not the only unusual aspect of the Democratic candidate.

Fetterman is an unorthodox candidate in other ways. He stands at 6 feet, 8 inches tall and almost always wears shorts and a gray hoodie, foregoing the traditional suit-and-tie. He is bald, has a goatee, dislikes being photographed, and has tattoos on both arms. Though some commentators view him as a “straight-talking everyman” with an “irreverent vibe,” others have highlighted his privileged upbringing: Fetterman grew up in a wealthy suburb, he is the son of a successful businessman, and he attended graduate school at Harvard. He was also financially supported by his family for 13 years as mayor of Braddock, accepting an annual salary from the city of just $150. Fetterman has countered these criticisms by pointing out that after starting on the path to being a successful businessman he ‘changed paths’ and dedicated himself to ‘fighting for forgotten communities’.

Mehmet Oz, the Republican, is also an unusual candidate. He has never held political office and has been heavily scrutinized for peddling medical misinformation and non-scientific advice on The Dr. Oz Show. He also faced criticism from his primary opponents for holding Turkish citizenship, though he has stated he will renounce it once in office. If elected, he would be the first Muslim Senator as well as one of the wealthiest, with a net worth of about $200 million.

Since the beginning of the general election, Fetterman’s campaign has gone on offense, attacking Oz’s character in social media posts and further demonstrating how this campaign is focused on personality over policy. Fetterman has used social media to draw attention to Mehmet Oz’s personal wealth and New Jersey roots. He has posted dozens of trolling Tweets about Oz’s New Jersey residency and paid for a plane to fly over the Jersey Shore with a banner reading “HEY DR. OZ. WELCOME HOME TO N.J.! ♥ JOHN”. Fetterman also commissioned N.J. celebrities Snooki (Jersey Shore) and Steven Van Zandt (E Street Band guitarist and Sopranos actor) to film videos questioning why Oz was running for Senate in PA when he is a famous New Jerseyan. Fetterman has also ridiculed Oz’s ostentatious wealth, portraying him as out-of-touch with working-class Pennsylvanians and highlighting that Oz owns nine mansions in New Jersey, Manhattan, Turkey, Florida, and the recent purchase of a ‘farmstead’ in Pennsylvania. Despite these jabs, Oz and Fetterman remain neck-and-neck, according to the latest polls

Policy Matters, Donations, and Debates

Though debates over candidate quality overshadow any discussion of substantive policy matters in this race, voters in Pennsylvania are also weighing matters of state- and national-level policy as they make up their minds before Election Day. Some of the most important issues in the race include abortion, crime, gas prices and inflation, energy and climate, gun control, and healthcare. Both candidates have extensive “Issues” pages on their websites (see John on the Issues and Dr. Oz’s Vision for Pennsylvania) but the campaign has mostly focused on the candidates’ personalities and has been highly nationalized, with money pouring in from the DSCC, NRSC, and national organizations. 

Due to the high visibility that the race has taken on in a national media market, the Pennsylvania Senate contest has become one of the most expensive campaigns this election cycle. John Fetterman has raised over $55 million, with most donations coming from small-dollar contributions from individual donors. On the other hand, Mehmet Oz’s campaign is mostly self-funded, with over $22 million (over 60% of total contributions) coming from Oz’s personal wealth. Outside groups have also spent over $131 million in the general election alone. Senate Leadership Fund, a right-leaning superPAC connected to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, has spent over $37 million to oppose Fetterman, while the Senate Majority PAC, aligned with senior Democratic Senators, has spent over $28.3 million to beat Oz. 

Oz and Fetterman met for their first and only debate last Tuesday, October 25th. Continuing a pattern throughout the entire campaign, the debate was hyper-focused on the candidates’ personalities, with little substantive discussion about policy issues. In Fetterman’s response to the opening question, “What qualifies you to be a U.S. Senator?,” he spent his allotted time attacking his opponent’s integrity – rather than speaking about his own qualifications – and introduced a catchphrase: “The Oz Rule: that when he’s on TV, he’s lying.” Fetterman also pestered Oz on his connection to Pennsylvania, emphasizing Oz’s strong New Jersey connections. When Oz was asked a tough question about the veracity of medical advice on the Dr. Oz Show, he spent much of his allotted time tying Fetterman to self-described democratic socialist Sen. Bernie Sanders, saying, “He embraces with Bernie Sanders…the two candidates call themselves the two most progressive people in America.” 

Fetterman insisted on using a live closed-captioning system during the debate because of his sensory processing delays resulting from his stroke. Despite this accommodation, Fetterman’s debate performance was incoherent. He struggled to communicate effectively and had frequent awkward pauses. His answers were unclear, disordered, and rambling, a sharp contrast to Oz’s debonair television and public speaking skills. In post-debate analysis, commentators largely believed Oz’s performance was superior. Chris Bock, a nonpartisan Pennsylvania-based pollster said, “Under normal circumstances, the debate would have to be considered a significant setback for Fetterman, as his performance certainly wasn’t strong, and Oz maintained the upper hand for most of the evening…But these aren’t normal circumstances, and it’s hard to determine how voters evaluate Fetterman given his stroke.” 

High-Stakes National Elections

The Fetterman-Oz horserace also occurs in the midst of Pennsylvania’s gubernatorial election, with popular Democratic Attorney General Josh Shapiro poised to beat fringe far-right state legislator Doug Mastriano in a blowout. John Fetterman and Shapiro have campaigned together, forming an “occasional alliance” and putting on a united front for Democrats in Pennsylvania. Philadelphia Democratic Party chairman Bob Brady said of Shapiro, “he’s got a coattail effect,” and Democrats hope Shapiro’s popularity will boost Fetterman in the ultra-competitive Senate race. In contrast, Mastriano and Oz have avoided each other, as Oz seeks to appear more moderate and avoid affiliation with Mastriano’s extreme views and struggling campaign. Oz and Mastriano appeared at a joint rally with President Trump on Saturday, November 5th. 

The race for Senate in Pennsylvania is happening alongside other tight Senate races where candidate quality has taken center stage. In Georgia, former football player Herschel Walker is the Republican challenging incumbent Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock, in a race pundits rated as a toss-up. Walker faces strong criticism for domestic abuse allegations and paying for former girlfriends’ abortions while taking a hardline anti-abortion stance in the campaign. However, much like Oz’s persistent strong poll numbers despite Fetterman’s ‘New Jersey carpetbagger’ jabs, voters in Georgia stand by Walker despite the abortion hypocrisy. 

 In Ohio, Rep. Tim Ryan is running against J.D. Vance, an author and venture capitalist, for the open seat of retiring Republican Sen. Rob Portman. Vance faces criticism for being an out-of-touch Californian with substantial campaign funding from conservative mega-donor Peter Thiel, and for a 180° shift in his political philosophy from his acclaimed 2017 autobiography Hillbilly Elegy. Even still, Vance has a 2% lead in recent polls. Candidate quality is a pivotal aspect of races for Senate in Pennsylvania and across the country, and the balance of power in the Senate may ultimately rest on voters’ evaluations of candidate charisma, rather than their stances on important policy issues. 

When Pennsylvania voters go to the polls on November 8th, 2022, they will choose between a political outsider celebrity doctor or an experienced yet unconventional Lieutenant Governor who struggles with public speaking and faces significant health challenges. Because the campaign has been hyper-focused on the candidates’ personalities, voters have had few opportunities to evaluate the candidates’ positions on salient policy matters. There has been some discussion of polarizing national topics like abortion, inflation, and crime, but Pennsylvanians have heard very little from the candidates about the nitty-gritty, fundamental local issues that affect their daily lives. Pennsylvania voters are deciding who will represent their interests in the U.S. Senate with little knowledge of where the candidates stand on the most important policy issues. One candidate will emerge victorious next Tuesday, but in a race that is so hyper-focused on candidate quality, rather than local issues, voters remain troublingly uninformed.

The image used in this article is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license. The original image was authored by Ed Gainey and can be found here.

Adam Sachs


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