Democrats are focusing on Fetterman’s health.  Swing voters think he’s sharper.
Democrats are focusing on Fetterman’s health. Swing voters think he’s sharper.

Democrats are focusing on Fetterman’s health. Swing voters think he’s sharper.

WASHINGTON – At focus groups in Pennsylvania this week, swing voters were shown a video of Democratic Senate candidate John Fetterman talking about a series of events since May’s stroke. The consensus, according to two people familiar with the responses given to Democratic operatives, was that persuasive voters believed Fetterman was fit to serve and would do well.

But the fact that Democrats are asking voters about Fetterman’s health suggests at least some concerns about whether it will affect the tightening of the race, even as the candidate strengthens his support among party loyalists, boosting his schedule. public and is preparing for Oct. 25. Debate with Republican candidate Mehmet Oz.

Four months after the stroke, Fetterman has not released his medical records. For most of the summer, as he recovered, he made few public appearances. He agreed to one debate with Oz, which followed the vote and accused him of ducking multiple debates to cover up any situation.

Fetterman says the biggest challenge is the lingering “auditory processing” problem, which means he can have trouble – especially in noisy environments – making sounds audible.

Earlier this month, Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., who is retiring after two terms and supports Oz, has questioned whether a Democrat can serve in the Senate.

“As someone who has served in the United States Senate for almost 12 years now, I have a really good understanding of how the place works,” Toomey said on September 6. “If John Fetterman is elected to the Senate, he will not be able to If he can’t communicate effectively, if he can’t work with the press, if he can’t work with colleagues, he won’t be able to do the job.”

Democrats say Oz is running a risky strategy because Fetterman’s influence is increasingly apparent at rallies, small-group campaign events and one-on-one interactions. In addition, they said, voters were turned off by Oz – a doctor – attacking the health of a stroke victim, a conclusion supported by some panelists.

“I was in Scranton on Saturday – he had 1,000 people! I’ve been to a lot of meetings and rally-type places for Senate races – there aren’t many senate races that get 1,000 people,” Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., said in an interview, praising Fetterman’s connection to voters. “That bond is very strong. And then they’re trying to break that and they’re having a real problem because they’re not connected. That’s what the competition is all about.”

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There are many pressing political issues for Pennsylvania voters – from the state of the economy to abortion and crime. But Oz made sure Fetterman’s health problems remained a top topic in the political conversation. Fetterman now has a chance to put those concerns to rest in a high-profile campaign that could help control the Democratic-led Senate and determine the fate of President Joe Biden’s agenda.

“John communicates effectively with the people of Pennsylvania and is running one of the best Senate campaigns in the country,” said Fetterman adviser Rebecca Katz, a former Senate leadership aide. “We don’t need to think he can be an effective leader in January, after he has four more months to recover. He has a lot to offer now.”

Two sitting senators, Ben Ray Luján, D-N.M., and Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., suffered strokes this year and returned to work.

Brooke Hatfield, associate director of health care services for the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, an advocacy group of communication professionals and scientists, likened the auditory processing challenges of stroke victims to “being thrown in a foreign country you know the language but don’t speak it every day,” adding that the mind must “work hard”.

But, she added, audio processing issues won’t affect decision-making or problem-solving and noted that the senator will have staff and technology — like the closed-circuit television that Fetterman uses now — to help.

“There are many supports available for people with communication disabilities,” Hatfield said. “I can’t think of a reason that someone with a communication disability … wouldn’t be able to do the things they need to do.”

Republican candidate Mehmet Oz
Republican Senate candidate Mehmet Oz speaks at a rally in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., on Sept. 3.Michelle Gustafson/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Earlier this summer, Pennsylvania Democrats specifically expressed concern about Fetterman’s health and lack of transparency, but Fetterman seems to have eased their fears. The party has wrapped itself around a message: showing its recent demographics, playing up its ties to voters and pointing to Oz’s New Jersey roots.

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Still, the race appears to have wrapped up the Keystone State. In the latest CBS News poll, Fetterman led Oz 52% to 47%. Fetterman led Oz 49% to 44% in the Morningstar/Muhlenberg College poll released Thursday.

The CBS poll revealed Oz’s continued neglect 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 Oz (compared to just 5% of Democrats who chose Oz over Fetterman).

Rep. Mike Kelly, R-Pa., lamented the ugly GOP nomination race that has tarnished Oz’s image.

“No one is bashing Republicans more than other Republicans in the primary,” he said, adding that Oz’s biggest problem is “probably the Republican who says ‘I’m not sure he’s a real Republican.'”

But activists from both parties believe the race has gotten tougher in recent weeks because Republicans are returning home to Oz and that the battle is for traditional swing voters.

Oz spokeswoman Brittany Yanick said in an email that Fetterman’s weakness is showing up in internal campaign polls.

“John Fetterman’s lead in the Senate race has evaporated because Dr. Oz is speaking to voters — Republicans, Democrats, and Independents — who want to see change from past failed policies,” Yanick said. . “John Fetterman throughout this campaign has failed to be honest about two things: his health and his support for the release of convicted murderers.”

The CBS poll, conducted Sept. 6-12, found voters said 59% to 41% that Fetterman is in good enough health to serve in public office. For independents, it was 55% to 45%.

That helps explain why Republicans are so divided over the focus on Fetterman’s health. Much of their advertising spending focused on allegations that Fetterman, who served on the state parole board, was soft on crime and far removed from financial matters.

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Along with Toomey, national Republicans have avoided direct claims that Fetterman doesn’t have what it takes to be a senator, instead suggesting he should be transparent and open to political criticism.

“He should be clean of his health,” Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla., chairman of the Republican campaign wing, said when asked if Fetterman has what it takes to get the job done. “And then he must also come clean of his radical policies like wanting to release a third of the state’s criminals and legalize all drugs.”

Democrats say Oz’s strategy was risky because some voters see the doctor as unprofessionally attacking a stroke victim — and because he set the bar for Fetterman’s debate performance so low that it would be easy to clear. .

State Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta, one of Fetterman’s rivals for the Democratic nomination since he gathered around himsaid in an interview, he believes that Oz’s attacks on Fetterman’s health showed “thinness” that will turn off voters.

Kenyatta added that he is encouraged by what he has seen and heard from Fetterman since resuming his campaign.

“That was scary for a lot of people,” Kenyatta said of the stroke. “And I think people are happy to see that he’s taken the time he needs to get back to a place where he can continue the tough schedule that he’s been on since he’s back on the campaign trail.”

Andy Harkulich, chairman of the Mercer County Democratic Party in western Pennsylvania, hosted Fetterman at a rally in late August and said the lieutenant governor appeared to be recovering well.

“If he’s having any problems, it’s minor,” said Harkulich, who is close to Fetterman. “But if you want to talk about the mind, I mean, still very sharp. Things to remember that we’ve talked about before. I think he’s good.”

The question is whether her fellow Pennsylvanians will feel the same way on November 8.

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