ERIE, Pa. – Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, returning to the campaign trail for the first time since suffering a stroke in May, told an Erie audience that he's counting on them to deliver Pennsylvania for him so he can deliver Democrats a 51st vote in the U.S. Senate.
Fetterman, 52, wearing jeans and a black Carhartt hoodie with his sleeves pushed up, took the stage to AC/DC's "Back in Black" with his wife, Gisele, by his side.
He stood patiently behind her as she introduced him as "my husband, your lieutenant governor, a stroke survivor and the next senator of Pennsylvania." He later told the crowd of nearly 1,400 supporters at the Bayfront Convention Center that he wouldn't be here without her.
It marked a critical moment in the race, which could decide the balance of power in the U.S. Senate.
In a recent poll, Fetterman leads celebrity heart surgeon Mehmet Oz, M.D., better known as Dr. Oz. The winner will fill the seat being vacated by Republican incumbent Sen. Pat Toomey.
"We could have picked any part of Pennsylvania where we were going to start the campaign trail," Fetterman said Friday. "Where are we?"
"Erie," the crowd erupted.
"We're in Erie because if you can't win Erie County, you can't win Pennsylvania," he said, referring to the county's history as a political bellwether.
Fetterman's health status
Fetterman has come under fire for his absence from the campaign trail since suffering a stroke on May 13. Oz has accused Fetterman of avoiding voters and the news media.
Fetterman clapped back Friday.
"Wait, are we in Erie? Or do I have 1,400 people in my basement?" he joked in his opening remarks, mocking the Oz campaign to the delight of the audience.
"Tonight, for me, is really about being grateful. Tomorrow, three months ago tomorrow, my life could have ended. It's the truth," Fetterman said.
Fetterman, who spoke without a script, showed some signs of the lingering effects of his stroke. At times his speech was slightly halted and his cadence uneven, but mostly it was fluid and strong.
Cardiologist Ramesh R. Chandra of Alliance Cardiology issued a statement in early June explaining Fetterman's medical condition. Chandra in 2017 diagnosed Fetterman with atrial fibrillation and prescribed him medications for the condition, urged him to improve his diet, exercise and return in the following months for a checkup.
"Instead, I did not see him again until yesterday," Chandra wrote in the June 3 statement released by the campaign. "John did not go to any doctor for 5 years and did not continue taking his medications."
Chandra noted that Fetterman's doctors implanted a pacemaker to treat another previously undiagnosed heart condition, cardiomyopathy. If Fetterman follows doctors' orders, "he'll be fine" and "should be able to campaign and serve in the U.S. Senate without a problem," wrote Chandra, who noted that the Democrat was now taking the issue seriously.
Erie County Democratic Party Chairman Jim Wertz, who last saw Fetterman at the party's spring dinner just days before his stroke, said the candidate looked and sounded good, but was "maybe dust(ing) off a couple of months of rust."
"I think he's back," Wertz said. "Everybody here has been waiting for a long time to hear from him. I've had communication with him in those three months. I had communication with him shortly after the primary. I think this is just a great opportunity for him to be out in front of a crowd, get his feet back under him and see how it goes. He tapped that tonight."
Fetterman's Senate platform
In his 15-minute speech, Fetterman talked about receiving three times the number of votes in his primary than Oz received from GOP voters in Erie County and how he won 25 of the state's 54 "red counties" in May.
Standing in front of a sign that read "Every county every vote," Fetterman said his message won't change as he returns to the campaign trail.
"We have always run the same campaign," he said. "There was never a primary and then a general. There was always one campaign. We're going to fight for every one of those counties and every one of those votes. We're going to take this to every voter and have a conversation with every single voter, too."
Fetterman said he would go to Washington and fight to increase the minimum wage, protect women's right to abortion access, work for the "union way of life" and eliminate the filibuster.
"Let's get some stuff done for America," he said. "It's not a secret how we're going to win."
Oz campaign, GOP respond
Hours before Fetterman took the stage in Erie, the National Republican Senatorial Committee issued a statement in which it continued to attack Fetterman for his absence.
NRSC spokeswoman Lizzie Litzow alleged that Fetterman's absence extends beyond the campaign trail and to his time as lieutenant governor and Braddock mayor. Citing reports from the conservative-leaning Washington Free Beacon, the NRSC accused Fetterman of missing key Senate sessions as lieutenant governor and for having missed a third of the Braddock City Council meetings during his tenure as mayor.
"I guess it’s harder to be brave when you have to answer real questions instead of hiding behind your keyboard," Litzow said in a statement.
The Republican National Committee noted that the 92 days Fetterman spent recovering from his stroke is more than the time remaining until the election.
“If John Fetterman truly understood the plight of Pennsylvania workers and families, he’d be adamantly opposed to his party weaponizing the IRS," Republican National Committee spokesman Sean Shute said, referring to new funding for the Internal Revenue Service. The Washington Post has reported that such claims by the GOP about the funding and how it would be used "lack significant context."
The Oz campaign on Friday challenged Fetterman to five debates.
“John Fetterman has hidden from reporters and the public for the last few months because he doesn’t want to talk about his radical policy positions," said Oz spokeswoman Brittany Yanick.
Democrat takes aim at Oz's New Jersey roots
As Oz has questioned Fetterman's time in recovery, Fetterman has struck back at the wealthy celebrity doctor for being out of touch with voters.
Despite being off the campaign trail for three months, Fetterman has led Oz in at least three polls outside the margin of error. In the most recent poll by Fox News, taken between July 22-26, respondents put Fetterman up by 11 points, 47% to 36%.
Oz, who fended off hedge fund manager David McCormick and other Republicans in a primary that went to an automatic recount, surged to the party's nomination after picking up the endorsement of former President Donald Trump.
Fetterman used his recovery time to poke and prod Oz for his New Jersey roots. Oz didn't have a Pennsylvania mailing address until 2020, when he registered to vote absentee at his in-laws' home in Montgomery County, which his campaign said at the time was the address where he the celebrity lived. In December 2021, he bought a $3.1 million farmstead in Montgomery County.
As The (Philadelphia) Inquirer reported, Oz applied for a tax credit typically reserved for farmers. Doing so allowed Oz to reduce the assessed value of the home by $1 million and shrink his tax bill by $50,000. Oz has yet to move into the house because he's waiting for renovations on it to be complete, but The Inquirer reported that there was little sign of work being done at the property.
Oz went to medical school at the University of Pennsylvania and received his master's of business administration at its Wharton School in Philadelphia. But Oz and his family have long lived in the Garden State at their Cliffside Park mansion overlooking the Hudson and Manhattan rivers.
Contact Matthew Rink at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @ETNrink.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: John Fetterman returns to Pennsylvania Senate campaign trail