ERIE, Pa. — Lt. Gov. John Fetterman returned to the Senate campaign trail Friday, continuing a stretch of good news for Democrats as they attempt to ride recent momentum into November.
Speaking at the Bayfront Convention Center in Erie, Pa., nearly three months to the day after a stroke he said nearly killed him, Fetterman expressed gratitude to the crowd of more than a thousand, most of whom had been lined up outside when the doors opened. He was introduced by his wife, Gisele, whom he credited with recognizing the symptoms and saving his life.
“Thank you so much for being here tonight, thank you so much, because really tonight is about being grateful, just grateful,” Fetterman, 52, said at the start of his remarks, his voice at one point cracking with emotion. “Three months ago, my life could have ended — it’s the truth. But I’m so grateful to be here tonight.”
Fetterman noted that he was lucky that he had fallen ill near a stroke facility in Lancaster and not in one of the more remote counties he has visited over the course of his campaign. Fetterman told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette last month that he had no physical limits, but that he "might miss a word every now and then in a conversation, or I might slur two words." He stumbled over a few words during his remarks Friday, but maintained high energy, buoyed by an enthusiastic crowd.
In the general election race to replace Republican Sen. Pat Toomey, who is retiring, Fetterman’s opponent is Dr. Mehmet Oz, the television host and cardiothoracic surgeon, who earned former President Donald Trump’s endorsement and the Republican nomination. The race has been pegged as the Democrats’ best chance at flipping a seat in a Senate that’s currently divided 50-50.
Fetterman previously served as the mayor of Braddock, a Pittsburgh suburb, and ran unsuccessfully for the Democratic Senate nomination in 2016. Four days before the primary back in May, Fetterman’s campaign announced that he was in the hospital recovering from a stroke, and then underwent a procedure on Election Day to have a pacemaker and defibrillator inserted. Gisele, a consistent fixture at his campaign events, served as a proxy candidate in the final days of the race. Despite the last-minute medical issue and lack of support from elected Democrats, Fetterman cruised to a blowout victory, winning every county and nearly 60% of the vote overall.
Fetterman spoke for a little over 10 minutes on Friday, about the length of his usual orations at primary stops — where much of the time is spent meeting with attendees for photos and selfies. He entered the stage in his signature hoodie but traded in his usual athletic shorts for jeans for the special occasion, with his wife playfully mocking his “fashion” in her introductory remarks. The black hoodie was paired with AC/DC’s “Back in Black” as a walk-on song.
On Friday, Fetterman reiterated his support for abolishing the legislative filibuster and for bills addressing the minimum wage, union power and reproductive rights. His other top issues include legalizing marijuana (he toured every county of the state early in his term, discussing the issue) and LGBTQ rights (he clashed with Republican legislators over hanging Pride flags from his balcony at his state Capitol office).
Fetterman has had no campaign appearances since May, although he has put out a bevy of TV ads and social media posts. Nevertheless, he rejoined the trail with a lead exceeding double digits in some recent polling. A win for him would flip a GOP seat and require Republicans to defeat two Democratic incumbents to wrest back control of the Senate. The data analytics site FiveThirtyEight recently flipped its Senate projection, making Democrats a slight favorite to hold the Senate.
Fetterman’s general election campaign began by lambasting Oz for his long-standing residency in New Jersey, cheekily enlisting the help of two Garden State legends, Nicole “Snooki” Polizzi of the hit MTV show “Jersey Shore” and Steven Van Zandt, of “The Sopranos” and Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band fame. In recent weeks, Fetterman has been attacking Oz’s wealth and his history of promoting questionable diet products on his popular syndicated television show.
Earlier this week, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported that although Oz had purchased a $3.1 million home in eastern Pennsylvania in December, he was still not living there. The Oz campaign told the paper it was not sure when he’d be moving into the home and that it needed renovations, although reporters found no sign of work being done. Oz is also collecting a $50,000 tax break on the property through a program that encourages the preservation of the forest surrounding it.
Oz’s stumble out of the general election gates followed a brutal and pricey primary battle with the hedge fund magnate David McCormick, whom he defeated by just under 1,000 votes. To gain ground in the race, Oz has tried to link Fetterman to President Biden, saying that he supported soft-on-crime policies. He has also painted Fetterman as far to the left, noting his two presidential endorsements of Sen. Bernie Sanders, the Vermont independent, and attacking him for being absent from the campaign trail. Oz has proposed five general election debates starting next month, but the Fetterman campaign has yet to respond.
For much of the summer, Fetterman’s lead was among the only good news for Democrats, but with the November midterms now under 100 days away, the party has reason to hope that Republicans will not put on as strong a showing as originally anticipated. The Inflation Reduction Act, which has polled well, passed the House on Friday about an hour before Fetterman spoke. In Kansas, the sound defeat of an anti-abortion ballot initiative is being seen as an indication of anger over the rollback of reproductive rights that could motivate Democratic voters into the fall. Falling gas prices and two special election losses that were narrower than expected have also buoyed Democrats, and Biden’s approval ratings have ticked up slightly of late, although they still remain well under water.
Fetterman's choice of Erie for the rally emphasizes its importance as one of the state’s key swing counties. In October 2020, it received visits from both Trump and Biden. In 2016, Trump won Erie County en route to notching the first Republican presidential victory in the state since 1988. Four years later, Biden flipped the county, the state and the White House.
The Senate race isn’t the only high-profile statewide contest in Pennsylvania this fall. The gubernatorial contest between the Democratic attorney general Josh Shapiro and Republican state Sen. Doug Mastriano is likely to be decisive for abortion policy in the state (Mastriano is advocating for a full ban). It could also indicate how the 2024 presidential race will ultimately be decided: Mastriano was present at the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, and has promoted baseless conspiracy theories about Biden’s victory.
Despite the positive polling for both Fetterman and Shapiro, Democrats have said they aren’t taking the current leads for granted. Erie County Democratic Party Chairman Jim Wertz told Yahoo News on Friday afternoon that he felt the key was to emphasize “Democratic values.”
“As long as we continue to talk about what is most important to people, particularly in a difficult time when folks have a lot of economic concerns and now, lots of personal concerns with legislation and court rulings going against their personal interest, it’s an opportunity for them to step up and make a decision,” Wertz said, adding that he felt the result in Kansas proved “Democratic values are American values.”
Speaking at the Fetterman event, Wertz was blunt about the need for action, saying, “Tell your neighbors and tell your friends. Don’t rest on your laurels because we’re ahead, because it’ll catch up and bite us in the ass.”
Fetterman concurred, saying that no matter where the polls stand, he intends to campaign as if Democrats were five points behind. He said that in the general election campaign, just as in the primary, he would attempt to “have a conversation with every single voter.”
“Three months ago, I may not have made it, but now I’m standing right here in Erie,” Fetterman said to conclude his remarks. “You are going to deliver for us in November, and I will deliver Pennsylvania for us. I will deliver us a 51st vote in the Senate.”