WASHINGTON — In focus groups in Pennsylvania this week, swing voters saw video of Democratic Senate candidate John Fetterman speaking at back-to-back events since his stroke in May. The consensus, according to two people familiar with the responses given to Democratic operatives, was that persuasive voters think Fetterman is fit to serve and become more accurate.
But the fact that Democrats are asking voters about Fetterman’s health at least suggests lingering concern about whether it will affect a tighter race, even as the candidate consolidates support among party loyalists, speeds up his public timeline and moves forward. preparing for an October 25th. debate with his Republican rival Mehmet Oz.
Four months after the stroke, Fetterman has not released his medical records. For much of the summer, while he recuperated, he made few public appearances. He agreed to a single debate with Oz, which trailed in the polls and accused him of dodging more debates to hide any infirmities.
Fetterman said his main challenge is a persistent problem with “auditory processing”, which means he can have trouble – especially in noisy environments – deciding which sounds to listen to.
Earlier this month, Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., who is retiring after two terms and supporting Oz, questioned whether the Democrat could run in the Senate.
“As someone who has served in the United States Senate for almost 12 years now, I have a very good understanding of how the place works,” Toomey said Sept. 6. “If John Fetterman was elected to the Senate, and he is unable to communicate effectively, if he is unable to engage with the press, if he is unable to interact with his colleagues, he won’t be able to do the job.
Democrats say Oz is pursuing a risky strategy as Fetterman’s ability is increasingly evident at rallies, at campaign events with small groups and in one-on-one interactions. Beyond that, they say, voters are put off by Oz — a doctor — attacking 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’ve been to a lot of rallies and rally-type events for Senate races — there aren’t many Senate races that draw 1,000 people,” Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., said in an interview, praising Fetterman’s connection with voters. “That connection is very strong. The other side tries to break that down and they have real problems because they don’t have the same connection. That’s what racing is about.”
There are plenty of pressing political issues for Pennsylvania voters — from the state of the economy to abortion and crime. But Oz has ensured that Fetterman’s health issues remain a major topic of political conversation. Fetterman now has the chance to allay those concerns in a high-stakes campaign that could swing control of the Democratic-led Senate and determine the fate of President Joe Biden’s agenda.
“John communicates effectively with the people of Pennsylvania and runs one of the best Senate campaigns in the country,” said Rebecca Katz, adviser to Fetterman, a former assistant to the Senate leadership. “We don’t need to speculate whether he can be an effective leader in January, having had four more months to recover. He is effective at the moment.
Two sitting senators, Ben Ray Luján, DN.M., and Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., had strokes this year and returned to work.
Brooke Hatfield, associate 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 auditory processing problems in stroke victims to “being abandoned in a foreign country where you know the language but don’t speak it every day”, adding that the brain has to “work harder”.
But, she added, auditory processing issues don’t affect decision-making or problem-solving and noted that a senator would have staff and technology — like the captioning that Fetterman uses. now – to help him.
“There are lots of supports available for people with communication differences,” Hatfield said. “I can’t think of a reason why someone with communication issues…wouldn’t be able to do the things they need to do.”
Earlier this summer, Democrats in Pennsylvania privately expressed concerns about Fetterman’s health and lack of transparency, but Fetterman appears to have allayed their fears. The party has coalesced around one message: highlighting its recent crowd size, playing on its connection to voters and highlighting Oz’s roots in New Jersey.
Still, the race seems to have ended in Keystone State. In a recent CBS News poll, Fetterman led Oz 52% to 47%. Fetterman led Oz 49% to 44% in a Morning Call/Muhlenberg College poll released Thursday.
The CBS investigation revealed Oz’s continuing vulnerabilities within the GOP. While independents were evenly split between the two candidates with 49% for each nominee, 13% of Republicans said they would vote for Fetterman over Oz (compared to just 5% of Democrats who chose Oz over Fetterman).
Rep. Mike Kelly, R-Pa., lamented the ugly GOP nominating contest that brought down Oz’s image.
“Nobody beats Republicans more than other Republicans in primaries,” he said, adding that Oz’s biggest problem is “probably Republicans saying ‘I’m not sure he’s a true Republican “.”
But operatives from both parties believe the race has narrowed in recent weeks because Republicans are heading home to Oz and the fight is over traditional swing voters.
Oz spokeswoman Brittany Yanick said in an email that Fetterman’s weaknesses resonated in internal campaign polls.
“John Fetterman’s lead in the Senate race has evaporated because Dr. Oz speaks to voters – Republicans, Democrats and independents – who want to see a change from the failed policies of the past,” Yanick said. “John Fetterman this whole campaign hasn’t been honest about two things: his health and his support for the release of convicted street murderers.”
The CBS poll, conducted Sept. 6-12, found voters say 59% to 41% that Fetterman is healthy enough to serve in public office. Among the self-employed, it was 55% to 45%.
It helps explain why Republicans are split on the importance of focusing on Fetterman’s health. Much of their publicity spending has focused on allegations 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 avoided blunt assertions that Fetterman can’t afford to be a senator, instead suggesting he should be more transparent and turn to political criticism.
“He needs to be clear about his health,” said Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla., chairman of the Republican Campaign Branch, when asked if Fetterman had what it takes to do the job. “And then he also needs to come clean about his radical policies like wanting to free a third of the state’s criminals and legalizing all drugs.”
Democrats say Oz’s strategy was risky because some voters find a doctor attacking a stroke victim unseemly – and because it set the bar so low for Fetterman’s debate performance that it will be easy to cross.
State Representative Malcolm Kenyatta, one of Fetterman’s rivals for the Democratic nomination who has since joined himsaid in an interview, that he thinks Oz’s attacks on Fetterman’s health showed a “glue” that will turn voters off.
Kenyatta added that he has been encouraged by what he has seen and heard from Fetterman since resuming his campaign.
“It 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 could maintain the kind of solid schedule he’s maintained since returning to the campaign trail. .”
Andy Harkulich, chairman of the Democratic Party of Mercer County in western Pennsylvania, greeted Fetterman at a rally in late August and said the lieutenant governor appeared to be recovering well.
“If he has any issues, it’s light,” said Harkulich, who huddled with Fetterman backstage. “But if you want to talk about mental, I mean, always very sharp. Remembering things we’ve talked about before. I think he’s fine.
The question is whether his fellow Pennsylvanians will feel the same on Nov. 8.