The handwringing among Democrats began before the closing arguments in the first and only debate for the open U.S. Senate seat from Pennsylvania between Democrat John Fetterman and Republican Dr. Mehmet Oz, and it didn’t let up until the votes started coming in on election night. It turned out that Fetterman, the former mayor of Braddock and current lieutenant governor, performed better than President Joe Biden had when he carried the state in 2020.
The voters answered the question that had kept Democrats anxious for the last two weeks: Would Fetterman’s halting speech, the result of a stroke five months earlier, cost Democrats the seat and along with it, control of the Senate?
“In the end [the debate] didn’t move anyone away from him and maybe even endeared him to some people,” said J.J. Abbott, a communications analyst who until recently was Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf’s press secretary. “We’re very tribalist these days,” he added.
Exit polls asked voters in Pennsylvania if they thought Fetterman was healthy enough to represent them, and they were divided, but it didn’t matter. “The talking heads have higher expectations of a senator than the voters do,” Abbott quipped.
But when asked if Oz had lived long enough in the state to represent them effectively, 55 percent said no, indicating that voters viewed the celebrity doctor’s carpetbagging as a bigger problem than Fetterman’s stroke. (A longtime resident of New Jersey, Oz had adopted his mother-in-law’s Pennsylvania address for his senate bid.)
Pennsylvania voters also answered the question of whether the abortion issue had lost its steam, as it’s been five months since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade—removing the constitutional right for women to control their own reproduction. Women voted for Fetterman over Oz by 15 percentage points. Four in ten voters said they were “angry” over the abortion issue. More than three quarters of the voters who said abortion was the most important issue supported Fetterman. They were a third of the electorate.
But among those who said inflation was the most pressing issue, more than three-quarters cast ballots for Oz. They made up more than a quarter of the electorate.
“If you ask people, ‘what is the biggest problem in your life right now,’ more people will say the economy, but that’s not how people vote,” says Abbott. “Voters are more complicated. Abortion is more of a motivator for Democrats, and for the Republicans, it’s a disqualifier.”
Fetterman was also helped by a late endorsement from Oprah Winfrey—the larger-than-life star who personally made Oz a celebrity with his frequent appearances on her long-running talk show. Oz had asked Oprah to stay out of the race, and she respected that until it was no longer tenable. Fetterman needed her, and if he lost, it would be on her—so she said last week that if she were a Pennsylvania voter, she’d vote for the Democrat.
However, politically, Oz was as much Trump’s creation as Oprah’s, and when the former president came to western Pennsylvania for a rally Saturday night, Oz was on and off the stage in less than five minutes. But the damage was done. Trump stood behind him and loomed over him the entire time, cementing a relationship that proved toxic in the vote-rich Philadelphia suburbs.
At that same rally, Republican gubernatorial candidate Doug Mastriano basked in Trump’s attention. But he performed even worse than Oz, as his race against Democrat Josh Shapiro was called before midnight on Tuesday—with Shapiro 11 percentage points ahead.
It was not a good night for Trump and the Big Lie. The outsized losses among some of Trump’s favorite candidates may signal the 2020 election is finally over—with the conservative-leaning New York Post heralding Florida Gov. Ron “DeFuture.”
The predicted rout of Democrats didn’t happen, and democracy held its own.
But in Pennsylvania, what seemed to have mattered most was authenticity (Oz—the rich guy from New Jersey—lacked it) and an aversion to the right taking away people’s rights.