At a press conference on Tuesday, Republican Sen. Pat Toomey appeared alongside the Republican seeking to replace him, Mehmet Oz—both of them surrounded by posters of previous Pennsylvania Senate debates.
Those visual aids were meant as a shaming tool. Oz’s Democratic opponent, John Fetterman, had bowed out of a debate that was to be held on that very day, citing “auditory processing” difficulties following a stroke he suffered in May.
Toomey wasn’t having it.
Fetterman “said he’s feeling ‘fantastic,’ ” the outgoing senator said. “He said he’s feeling better than he’s felt in a very long time. He said the only lingering effect of the stroke is, ‘every now and then I’m going to miss a word or mush two together.’
“Well if that’s all true, then why won’t he agree to debate Dr. Oz?” he continued. “It’s clear that he’s being dishonest. He’s either not as well as he claims to be, or he’s afraid to be called out on the radical policies he supports.”
And if it’s the former, Toomey argued, that’s a problem for someone seeking to be a senator. “It’s just not possible to be an effective senator,” he said, “if you cannot communicate. It’s just the essence of the job.”
Now, it’s been a rough summer for the Oz campaign. The celebrity doctor rode a Trump endorsement to a very narrow, 31-percent plurality win in the Republican primary, but has remained unpopular among the general electorate and struggled to coalesce Republicans behind his candidacy. The Oz campaign has also, as Democratic strategist Mark Nevins put it on a recent phone call, “gotten their ass handed to them on social media.” (Perhaps you’ve seen the memes about Oz’s longtime New Jersey residence or infamous “crudité” gaffe?) It’s left Republicans in poor position to retain a critical seat that could determine control of the Senate.
So, as the saying goes: When the going gets tough … go after your opponent’s health. It’s a risky strategy. Will it work?
“If John Fetterman had ever eaten a vegetable in his life,” Oz’s communications adviser, Rachel Tripp, said in late August, “then maybe he wouldn’t have had a major stroke and wouldn’t be in the position of having to lie about it constantly.” This was a baffling statement, even putting aside the nastiness of mocking a stroke survivor: In what way is it a winning strategy to trash someone for not eating vegetables?
Then, a week later, the Oz campaign issued a sarcastic statement of debate “concessions” to Fetterman, which included the line “We will pay for any additional medical personnel he might need to have on standby.” In a rejoinder, Fetterman claimed it was this statement that “made it abundantly clear” that Dr. Oz and his campaign thinks it is “funny to mock a stroke survivor.” Fetterman cited the statement as a reason for why he wouldn’t participate in the early September debate.
I called a 2016 campaign adviser to Mark Kirk, the Illinois senator who suffered a major stroke in 2012 that kept him out of the Senate for about a year, to talk about the precedent for this kind of thing. “I was pretty stunned at some of the language coming out in this campaign,” the Kirk adviser told me. “I think blaming someone’s stroke on a diet—that’s a new tactic I haven’t seen before.”
Kirk lost to Sen. Tammy Duckworth in his 2016 reelection, but both the Kirk adviser and a former adviser to Duckworth’s campaigns agreed: Kirk’s health or “fitness to serve” weren’t an issue at all in that campaign. Both candidates, after all, had a disability and a mutual respect for each other’s situation. Besides that, it was just seen as something that you don’t do.
“Sen. Duckworth was pretty respectful and, I think, empathetic of the rigors that Mark went through,” the Kirk adviser said, “and Mark had a great deal of respect for the rigors Sen. Duckworth went through.”
“We made a strategic decision, and [based] on Tammy’s sense of integrity, that we would not litigate” Kirk’s fitness for office, the Duckworth adviser said, “and we focused on the issues, and his voting record, and that he ultimately did not best represent the constituents of Illinois.”
It also wasn’t a particularly close race—Duckworth won by 15 points. Pennsylvania isn’t Illinois, though, and observers on both sides agree that the Pennsylvania Senate race will tighten. But Oz, after a lousy summer, needed to change the conversation.
Oz attempted to distance himself from his staffers’ snarky comments last week, portraying himself and his campaign team as distinct entities. “The campaign’s been saying lots of things, both of them,” Oz said. “My position is: I can only speak to what I’m saying.”
But the Toomey press conference indicates that they’ll continue to press the issue of Fetterman’s health, albeit in a less inflammatory way. There will be fewer gags about Fetterman’s diet and, instead, Oz’s team and his surrogates will try to shoehorn the issue through things like Fetterman’s position on debates—and what it means about his ability to serve effectively for six years.
“I worked on my first campaign in 1994, and since 1994, I’ve yet to see one Senate or congressional race turn on whether or not somebody debated,” said Mike Mikus, a Democratic strategist in Pittsburgh, on a recent phone call. “It’s ridiculous. The debate about debates happens in every campaign and has zero impact on the electorate.”
Ah, the old “debate about debates”! It goes, roughly, like this:
Candidate A: I challenge my opponent to debate on these conditions.
Candidate B: I challenge my opponent to debate on these conditions.
Candidate A: Why is my opponent scared to debate me?
Candidate B: Why is my opponent scared to debate me?
It’s sparring for the sake of sparring, and then a deal gets cut. They debate.
The question of whether Fetterman would debate at all, though, had more purchase than the Oz campaign’s previous strategy of snark. The Kirk campaign adviser, while sympathetic to Fetterman’s condition and baffled by the Oz campaign’s mud-slinging, told me, “if you’re speaking up at union halls, you probably need to suck it up and do the debate.”
And the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette wrote in an editorial this week that while Oz has been a jerk about it, his barbs raise “legitimate questions” about Fetterman’s health. “If Mr. Fetterman’s communication skills have not yet recovered sufficiently to effectively debate his opponent,” the editorial board wrote, “many voters will have concerns about his ability to represent them effectively in Washington.”
As a reporter who’s covered the Senate, I have to chime in here to say that the leap from A to B here—that halting speech while recovering from a stroke could make someone an ineffective senator—really is a leap. A not-insignificant percentage of senators have been virtually dead for years but still secure the goods for their state. Two senators have had strokes in just the past year. There is maybe one actual, rigorous debate on the Senate floor during each session of Congress, and floor time is otherwise consumed by senators mugging to an empty chamber. They eat their catered lunch, vote on a judge along party lines, and do the real business in private meetings where dazzling oratory isn’t required.
By Wednesday, though, Fetterman felt the need to release some of the tension. In an interview with Politico, affirmed that he would debate Oz at least once, saying it “was really always our intent to do that.”
Whether the Oz campaign can continue to raise the “legitimate questions” about Fetterman’s health without veering back into outright nastiness going forward will be an interesting line to watch them straddle. Those first, nasty shots at Fetterman’s recovery weren’t a sustainable strategy, but they may have served a purpose. Oz’s first priority to get back into contention was to coalesce the MAGA base. And the MAGA base is “the MAGA base,” in the first place, because it responded positively to the campaign tactics of Donald Trump.
The Kirk campaign adviser remembered getting press inquiries from reporters in 2016 after Trump mocked a disabled New York Times reporter. This was one of the 10,000 things during Trump’s first campaign that was supposed to be the death of his candidacy, given how beyond the pale it was. Obviously, it wasn’t, and his joking about Hillary Clinton’s “medical episode” in September of 2016 wasn’t either. But as the Kirk adviser said, “the 2016 cycle changed a lot of how people think about opponents and candidates.” What was previously below the belt is now an effective way to own the libs.