WASHINGTON — In focus groups in Pennsylvania this week, undecided voters were shown a video of Democratic Senate candidate John Fetterman speaking at successive events since he suffered a stroke in May. The consensus, according to two people familiar with responses given to Democratic operatives, was that persuadable voters believe Fetterman is fit to serve and getting smarter.
But the fact that Democrats are asking voters about Fetterman’s health suggests at least some lingering concern about whether it will affect an increasingly close race, even as the candidate consolidates support among the party faithful, heightens his public agenda. and is preparing for an election on October 1. Debate on the 25th with Republican rival Mehmet Oz.
Four months after the stroke, Fetterman did not release his medical records. For much of the summer, while recovering, he made few public appearances. He agreed to a one-debate matchup with Oz, who has fallen behind in the polls and has accused him of doing more debates to hide any illness.
Fetterman has said his main challenge is a persistent “auditory processing” problem, which means he may have trouble, particularly in noisy environments, choosing which sounds to listen to.
Earlier this month, Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pennsylvania, who is retiring after two terms and supporting Oz, questioned whether the Democrat could run in the Senate.
“As someone who served in the United States Senate for almost 12 years, I understand very well how the place works,” Toomey said on September 6. “If John Fetterman is elected to the Senate and he can’t communicate effectively, if he can’t interact with the press, if he can’t interact with his colleagues, he won’t be able to get the job done.”
Democrats say Oz is pursuing a risky approach because Fetterman’s ability is increasingly evident at rallies, small-group campaign events and in one-on-one interactions. Beyond that, they say, Oz, a doctor, turns off voters when he attacks the health of a stroke victim, a conclusion supported by some of the focus group participants.
“I was with him on Saturday in Scranton, he had 1,000 people! I have been to many meetings and rally-type stages for Senate races; there aren’t many Senate races that get 1,000 people together,” Sen. Bob Casey, a Pennsylvania Democrat, said in an interview praising Fetterman’s connection. to voters “That connection is very strong. The other side is trying to break that and they’re having trouble because they don’t have the same connection. That’s what racing is about.”
There are many pressing policy issues for Pennsylvania voters, from the state of the economy to abortion and crime. But Oz has made sure that Fetterman’s health problems remain a main topic of political conversation. Fetterman now has the opportunity to put those concerns to rest in a high-stakes campaign that could tip control of the Democratic-led Senate and determine the fate of President Joe Biden’s agenda.
“John is communicating effectively with the people of Pennsylvania and running one of the best Senate campaigns in the country,” said Rebecca Katz, an adviser to Fetterman and a former Senate leadership aide. “We don’t need to speculate on whether he can be an effective leader in January, after he has had four more months to recover. He is effective right now.”
Two sitting senators, Ben Ray Luján, DN.M., and Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., suffered strokes this year and returned to work.
Brooke Hatfield, deputy director of health care services at the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, an advocacy group of professionals and scientists working in the fields of communication assistance, compared the challenges of processing hearing loss in stroke victims with “being dropped off in a foreign country where you know the language but you don’t speak it every day,” adding that the brain has to “work harder.”
But, he added, auditory processing issues don’t affect decision-making or problem solving, noting that a senator would have staff and technology, like the closed captioning Fetterman now uses, to help.
“There are many supports available for people with communication differences,” Hatfield said. “I can’t think of a reason why someone with communication issues … can’t do the things he needs to do.”
Earlier this summer, Pennsylvania Democrats privately raised concerns about Fetterman’s health and lack of transparency, but Fetterman appears to have allayed their fears. The party has rallied around one message: highlight the size of its recent crowd, highlight its bond with voters, and point to Oz’s roots in New Jersey.
Still, the race seems to have closed at Keystone State. In a recent CBS News poll, Fetterman led Oz 52% to 47%. Fetterman led Oz 49% to 44% in a Morning Call Survey/Muhlenberg College released Thursday.
The CBS poll revealed Oz’s persistent vulnerabilities within the GOP. While independents were evenly split between the two candidates with 49% for each candidate, 13% of Republicans said they would vote for Fetterman over Oz (compared to only 5% of Democrats who chose Oz over Fetterman).
Rep. Mike Kelly, R-Pennsylvania, lamented the ugly GOP nominating contest that tarnished Oz’s image.
“No one beats up Republicans more than other Republicans in the primaries,” he said, adding that Oz’s biggest problem is “probably Republicans saying ‘I’m not sure he’s a real Republican.'”
But officials from both parties believe the race has tightened in recent weeks as Republicans return to Oz and the fight is over traditional swing voters.
Oz spokeswoman Brittany Yanick said in an email that Fetterman’s weaknesses resonate with the campaign’s internal polling.
“John Fetterman’s lead in the Senate race has evaporated because Dr. Oz is talking to voters — Republicans, Democrats and independents — who want to see a change from the failed policies of the past,” Yanick said. “John Fetterman this entire campaign has not been honest about two things: his health and his support for releasing convicted murderers back onto the streets.”
The CBS poll, conducted Sept. 6-12, found voters say 59% to 41% say Fetterman is in good health to serve in public office. Among independents, it was 55% to 45%.
That helps explain why Republicans are divided on how much to focus on Fetterman’s health. Much of his ad spending has focused on accusations that Fetterman, who served on a state parole board, is soft on crime and too left-wing on economic issues.
Aside from Toomey, national Republicans have backed away from direct claims that Fetterman lacks the facilities to be a senator, suggesting instead that he should be more transparent and turn to political criticism.
“You have to confess your health,” said Sen. Rick Scott, R-Florida, chairman of the GOP campaign arm, when asked if Fetterman has what it takes to get the job done. “And then he also has to come clean about his radical policies like wanting to free a third of the criminals in the state and legalize all drugs.”
Democrats say Oz’s strategy has been risky because some voters find it unseemly for a doctor to attack a stroke victim, and because it has set the bar so low for Fetterman’s performance in the debate that it will be easy to beat.
State Representative Malcolm Kenyatta, one of Fetterman’s rivals for the Democratic nomination who has since you gathered around himhe said in an interview that he believes Oz’s attacks on Fetterman’s health showed a “thinness” that will turn off voters.
Kenyatta added that he has been encouraged by what he has seen and heard from Fetterman since he resumed campaigning.
“That was very scary for a lot of people,” Kenyatta said of the stroke. “And I think people are happy to see that he took the time he needed to get back to a place where he was able to maintain the kind of strong schedule that he has maintained since he got back on the campaign trail.”
Andy Harkulich, chairman of the Mercer County Democratic Party in western Pennsylvania, greeted Fetterman at a rally in late August and said the lieutenant governor appeared to be recovering well.
“If you have a problem, it’s minor,” said Harkulich, who huddled with Fetterman backstage. “But if you want to talk mentally, I mean, still very sharp. He remembered things we’ve talked about before. I think he’s fine.”
The question is whether his fellow Pennsylvanians will feel the same on November 8.