Pressure mounts on Fetterman as Pennsylvania Senate race tightens

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Democratic nominee John Fetterman is facing new pressure amid signs the Pennsylvania Senate race is tightening a little more than a month before Election Day.

Two new polls this week have shown Fetterman’s lead over Republican candidate Mehmet Oz shrinking, a development that comes as he faces growing scrutiny over his health, Republicans attack him on his law enforcement record as lieutenant governor and Oz racks up some notable endorsements.

While Fetterman’s allies say the recent tightening of polls is a natural result of Election Day approaching, it also raises the stakes for the Democrat as he looks to maintain his lead ahead of a crucial debate against Oz later this month.

A survey from Emerson College Polling and The Hill released on Friday showed Fetterman leading Oz 45 percent to 43 percent, within the poll’s margin of error and down from the Democrat’s 4-point lead in August.

Meanwhile, a Fox News poll released on Wednesday found that 45 percent of registered Pennsylvania voters said they’d vote for Fetterman if the Senate election was held today, compared with 41 percent for Oz. A Fox News poll of the race conducted in July showed Fetterman with an 11-point lead.

“This race was always bound and determined to be tighter and sure, it’s cause for concern, but I can guarantee you it’s not out of the blue,” said T.J. Rooney, former chairman of Pennsylvania’s Democratic Party.

The Fetterman campaign is “not caught flat-footed,” he added.

Pennsylvania has lived up to its reputation as a swing state in recent years. President Biden won the state by less than 2 points in 2020, while former President Trump won the state by less than 1 point in 2016.

And most voters tend to begin paying closer attention to elections after Labor Day, once the primary season wraps up and campaigns enter general election mode.

“Last time I checked we’re in Pennsylvania,” said Joe Calvello, a spokesperson for Fetterman’s campaign. “We don’t come to play here. It’s the big leagues.”

Calvello touted the campaign’s ground game, pointing to a Fetterman rally last weekend in the Lehigh Valley that drew more than 1,000 people.

“We feel good heading into this stretch because of what we’re seeing on the ground,” Calvello said.

But Oz’s allies and Republicans say the closing gap isn’t just a function of Election Day approaching in a competitive state, but rather a sign Oz is gaining traction with voters.

“We got out of a tough primary and that always takes a little while to resettle, but now I think Republicans are united around Dr. Oz’s campaign,” said Barney Keller, an Oz spokesperson. “They know the stakes are important in this election, whether we’re going to have safer streets or an economy that works for the middle class.”

Other Republicans argue that the tightening polls have more to do with Fetterman himself.

“Oz is just not Fetterman,” said Keith Naughton, a GOP strategist who has worked on Pennsylvania campaigns. “[Fetterman] is a bad candidate and he’s the candidate Republicans wanted to run against.”

The Cook Political Report shifted its rating of the Pennsylvania Senate race to “lean Democrat” in August.

But, in addition to the tightening polls, Oz since then has gained several notable endorsements, including from former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge (R) on Thursday.

While on the surface a former Republican governor endorsing a GOP Senate candidate may not seem out of the ordinary, Ridge is arguably a different kind of high-profile Republican than the others who have endorsed Oz. The former governor broke with the GOP in 2020 and endorsed President Biden over then-President Trump.

Oz’s allies this week have also been touting his endorsement from the Pennsylvania State Troopers Association, which spilt its ticket and backed Democratic gubernatorial nominee Josh Shapiro. Additionally, Oz won the endorsement from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Oz’s allies say that the recent endorsements, along with Trump’s, are indicative of a Republican coalition the celebrity doctor-turned-politician is forming and negates the Democratic strategy of painting Oz as too extreme or Trumpian.

Rooney also noted the importance of Ridge’s endorsement of Oz, saying the former governor is still a relevant player in Pennsylvania’s political realm.

“The notion that well-respected establishment Republicans are supporting Oz definitely sends a signal, there’s no question about it,” he said.

There’s also the argument that the commonwealth’s Senate race is a higher priority for Republicans growing increasingly pessimistic about their gubernatorial prospects.

The same Emerson College Polling-The Hill survey found Shapiro leading Republican candidate Doug Mastriano 51 percent to 41 percent. The nonpartisan Cook Political Report moved the race’s rating from “lean Democratic” to “likely Democratic.”

“Because everyone has abandoned the gubernatorial candidate, every Republican has kind of rallied behind Oz,” Rooney said.

One Democratic strategist quipped that Mastriano has set the bar low for the Oz campaign.

“You cannot set the bar lower than ‘look at me, I’m running a better campaign than Doug Mastriano’, who I believe recently announced 40 days of fasting and prayer,” the strategist said. “If you would told me a year ago, not even knowing the nominees, that after the Labor Day the Republican nominee would be endorsed by the Chamber of Commerce and Tom Ridge, I mean that makes sense those are all Republicans.”

As the campaign season enters its closing month, the contrast in messaging between Fetterman and Oz could not be more different.

While both candidates have addressed the state of the country’s economy, which many Americans fear is creeping toward a recession, Fetterman has been hammering Oz on the issue of abortion while Oz focuses in on crime.

“Answering this question is so hard for him because he knows Pennsylvania won’t stand for this. He’d vote to ban abortion nationwide if he got the chance,” Fetterman said in a statement on Friday. “His views on this issue is way out of step for Pennsylvania, but that’s why he’s hiding.”

Oz’s campaign has said that he is “pro-life,” but supports exceptions for instances of rape, incest and protecting the life of the mother.

Meanwhile, Oz’s campaign has sought to paint Fetterman as weak on crime, pointing to his record on the issue as mayor of Braddock, Pennsylvania, and as lieutenant governor.

“Everyone’s waiting and excited for the debate on the 25th because it will expose Fetterman for what his record truly is [on crime],” said one national Republican operative.

Fetterman’s campaign rolled out an ad earlier this week, featuring the sheriff of Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, touting his record.

Ultimately though, Republicans and Democrats agree that the economy is likely to be the deciding factor.

“At the end of the day, the decider in a close election is going to be economic issues,” Rooney said.

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