How Dr. Oz tightened Pa. Senate race with Fetterman. Is it a warning sign for Democrats?

WASHINGTON—The race for Pennsylvania's open U.S. Senate seat this year was once considered Democrat John Fetterman's to lose, as Republican Dr. Mehmet Oz found himself on the ropes.

Oz, a cardiothoracic surgeon, took a political beating in the Pennsylvania primary from top opponent Dave McCormick – a race that wasn’t called for three weeks after Election Day, in which the doctor was painted as a Hollywood outsider who lives in New Jersey.

So how did a Donald Trump-backed celebrity doctor survive a rough-and-tumble primary and accusations of carpetbagging to make the nationally watched Pennsylvania Senate race a neck-and-neck affair? A combination of issues, including an influx of GOP money and an untimely medical setback for his opponent.

Fetterman, the Pennsylvania lieutenant governor, took an early lead in the polls. But then the former Braddock mayor suffered a stroke days before the May primary, took time off the campaign trail and continues to work through lingering speech issues.

Now Oz appears to have launched a comeback, narrowing the poll gap.

That has turned a Senate race once considered a slam dunk for Democrats into one of the most competitive in the nation, at a time when a 50-50 Senate split means control of the chamber could hinge on a single race.The shift is a warning sign to national Democrats who may have thought the abortion issue was enough to win the Pennsylvania seat.

From being trolled by Fetterman on social media over referring to a supermarket veggie tray as "crudités," Oz has now attracted millions of dollars from national political action committees. He has a barrage of ads running against his opponent, has the media joining him in asking for the Democrat’s health records and has effectively cut Fetterman’s lead to a few points – within the margin of error.

Is the momentum really shifting in Oz's favor or is the race tightening just typical midterm politics in a battleground state after Labor Day?

"That's the million-dollar question," said Jessica Taylor, Cook Political Report Senate editor.

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A polling lead narrows

Early in the summer, Fetterman held a nearly double-digit lead over his Republican opponent and was on track to help Senate Democrats secure their majority.

But in the last month, Oz has surged in spending and favorability and eroded Fetterman’s lead to 3 points, according to a new Franklin & Marshall Poll out Thursday. A Morning Call/Muhlenberg College poll last week showed Fetterman with a 5-point lead. The RealClearPolitics average of polls shows Fetterman with a 4.5-point lead.

Earlier this month, Fetterman campaign manager sent a memo to donors as "a wake-up call". The memo was first obtained by Politico.

"In the last three weeks alone, Republicans have spent nearly $12 million dollars – significantly outspending us and out-communicating on the airwaves. We cannot allow this to continue unabated."

All of that has led to a much tighter race than it was a few months ago.

“All the polling evidence shows this is a very competitive race,” said Chris Borick, director of the Muhlenberg College Institute of Public Opinion. “Earlier in the summer, it didn’t seem as such.”

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Why the Pennsylvania Senate race matters

The winner of the Pennsylvania Senate race could determine which major party controls Congress and the fate of Biden's agenda in the remaining half of his term. Major issues that could be considered by the next Congress include abortion rights, LGBTQ rights, climate policies, election reform and voting rights, and more.

Democrats are trying to build on their slim Senate lead, where Vice President Kamala Harris casts the tie-breaking vote. They hope to pick up a handful of seats in battleground states, including in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

Republicans, for their part, are focusing on four states: Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Georgia and Nevada.

"The chairman (Sen. Rick Scott) feels very confident we can get to 52 (seats), holding Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, and picking up Georgia and Nevada," said Chris Hartline, communications director for the National Republican Senate Committee. "They are our core four."

The National Republican Senate Committee, along with the Senate Leadership Fund, a super PAC closely aligned with Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, and Oz's political action committee, have spent aggressively since Labor Day, pouring tens of millions into Pennsylvania to try and hold onto the seat currently held by retiring GOP Sen. Pat Toomey.

Hartline said the plan was always to invest heavily after Labor Day and maintain the spending through the November election.

Republicans spent about $16 million in Pennsylvania TV ads alone in the last month.

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The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee committed to spending $30 million on battleground races and in April said it would send $3 million to Pennsylvania.

In addition, earlier this month, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer transferred $1 million to support Fetterman’s campaign from a super PAC of his own.

DSCC senior communications strategist Pat Burgwinkle said Democrats anticipated a close race.

"Democrats have been preparing all cycle for a tight race in Pennsylvania," he said.

Cook Political Report currently rates Pennsylvania as "leans Democratic."

"It's clear it's tightening, but it's one we are continuing to watch," said Cook Political Report's Taylor.

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Challenges for Fetterman

In the primaries, when Fetterman had large leads over his Democratic opponents and Oz was in a fierce GOP battle, the Democrat was able to sharpen his brand without much pushback.

Even when Fetterman had a stroke, Oz was mostly quiet on the issue – other than to wish him well – while his GOP primary race was being decided.

A Supreme Court decision in June that ended the constitutional right to an abortion and sent abortion rights back to the states rocked the midterms. Democrats got some momentum as many voters worried about abortion bans. The issue threw the Fetterman campaign some cover while the candidate returned to health and also ushered in a deluge of donations for him and other Democrats.

"It was like Fetterman was running unopposed over the summer," said Berwood Yost, director of Franklin & Marshall's Center for Opinion Research. "That has changed. Oz is challenging his crime record, and the messaging is working."

Christopher Nicholas, a GOP strategist in Harrisburg, doesn't need a poll to tell him the messaging is working. He can tell by Fetterman's new ads that respond to Oz's attack ads painting the Democrat as a soft-on-crime extremist who is "trying to get as many criminals out of prison as he can."

"When you are responding to ads, you're doing it because you're getting hurt," Nicholas said.

Oz has used TV ads to portray Fetterman as too liberal for the Pennsylvania electorate, Borick said. It has made the Democrat an uncomfortable fit for moderate and older voters, who are crucial voting blocs in the midterms.

“Older voters are a soft spot for Fetterman,” he said.

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Fetterman's health

Oz, and national and local media, have called on Fetterman to release his health records and commit to more debates. The Republican has already released his records, and Fetterman has agreed to one debate on Oct. 25 – two weeks before Election Day.

A campaign spokesman did not answer whether Fetterman will release his health records. Instead, he shared the candidate's statement from last week that said Oz's health records from a New York City doctor is further evidence the GOP candidate does not live in Pennsylvania "because no one who does would have a primary care doctor on 5th Avenue in Manhattan."

"We didn’t need to know Dr. Oz’s bone density. We need to know whether he would vote to ban all abortions after 15 weeks. We need to know whether he would vote to raise the minimum wage. We need to know whether he even plans to stay in Pennsylvania after the election," Fetterman said in the statement.

Fetterman released a letter from his doctor in June that said the Democrat is fit to serve.

Campaign spokesman Joe Cavello said: "We have disclosed more information about John’s health than any senator who wasn’t running for president — and even some who have. We have released a letter from his cardiologist, John put out a candid letter directly from himself, and talked about this extremely personal process with reporters where he has spoken about the lingering effect of the stroke, his auditory processing issue."

In an interview with USA TODAY, Fetterman said his doctors all said he's "great to go" and "fit to run."

Though he has lingering speech issues, Fetterman said he is still campaigning in front of large crowds and traveling around the state.

"Everything demonstrates that really Dr. Oz is the only person that is choosing to mock that, and I think it's twisted that a real doctor would try to mock somebody that had a health challenge," he said.

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Challenges for Oz

Oz has tightened the race, but Fetterman still leads in every poll, albeit often within the margin of error.

“The one thing Oz hasn’t done is address his own deficiencies,” said Mike Mikus, a Democratic strategist in Pennsylvania. “He’s still incredibly unpopular in Pennsylvania and has a credibility gap. Most voters don’t like him.” For example, a Muhlenberg poll last week showed 53% of voters with an unfavorable view of Oz and 29% with a favorable view.

Crime ads against Fetterman are working with some groups, he said. “It may have stopped the bleeding, but I still think Fetterman can win this.”

Challenges facing Oz include a potential Democratic wave on abortion and continuing negative ads that portray him as an outsider. The Fetterman campaign has repeatedly called on Oz to declare and defend his position on abortion.

Oz did not agree to an interview with USA TODAY. His campaign spokesman Barney Keller said Oz is pro-life and believes in three exceptions: rape, incest and the mother’s health. He also believes in letting states determine abortion rights and does not support criminal penalties for patients or doctors.

Mikus said he always expected a close Senate race in the 2022 midterms.

“This is Pennsylvania,” he said. “We don’t do blowouts.”

Candy Woodall is a Congress reporter for USA TODAY. She can be reached at cwoodall@usatoday.com or on Twitter at @candynotcandace.

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Pa. Senate race: Dr. Oz closes gap with Fetterman. Is it a warning?