John Fetterman is ducking Dr. Oz and it might cost him

AP Photo/Marc Levy

I still think this is the likeliest Senate swing seat to go blue this fall. Dr. Oz’s favorability in numerous polls has been brutal and he’s too much of a squish to expect much by way of enthusiastic MAGA turnout. (Although getting to run on the same ballot as Doug Mastriano will help with that.) He’s also certainly going to be outspent before this race is done.


But he has two things going for him. One is public concern over crime, particularly the epidemic of shootings this year in Philadelphia. A far-left Democrat who’s on record as saying he wants to reduce the prison population by a third isn’t a great match for that mood, and Oz has been capitalizing in ads.

The other is Fetterman’s struggle to recover from his stroke. That’s a delicate issue for a political opponent to exploit and Oz has been less than delicate about it so far. But one way to put Fetterman on the spot and raise public doubts about his ability to do the job is to simply pester him for a debate. Voters expect one and Fetterman surely would have agreed to it before his health crisis. The trouble he’s had speaking fluently, without trailing off or missing words in his sentences, now makes a debate a serious liability for him. If he agrees to one and can’t get through it, or can only get through it with obvious difficulty, he may be ruined. But if he refuses to agree to one, it may operate as an admission in the minds of voters that he’s not really fit to do the job.

Oz continued to press him about it yesterday — again, not in the most delicate manner:

I don’t know why he felt obliged to include the snide aside about paying for “medical personnel” apart from the fact that impressing Republican voters requires a certain amount of gratuitous nastiness nowadays. Fetterman ended up seizing on that as an excuse — a lame excuse — to turn down Oz’s invitation:


He alludes there to the real reason he won’t debate, that he’s in no shape to do it while his recovery continues. But Oz goofing on him for needing medical help handed him a fig leaf to claim that it’s actually because he’s offended or something:

Savor the irony of Team Fetterman using tone-policing as a reason to duck a debate when they’ve famously resorted to an “all sh*tposting, all the time” strategy against Oz to try to fill the void left by their candidate’s inability to speak fluently anymore. It’s the political equivalent of “you wouldn’t hit a guy with glasses, would you?” after the guy in glasses has spent three months punching you in the face.

But it’s the best spin Fetterman can muster under the circumstances. No one thinks he’ll fully regain his ability to speak in the next 60 days, after all. He’ll need to find pretexts to avoid debating. Oz gave him an easy one yesterday. How will Pennsylvania voters feel about Fetterman ducking come mid-October, though?


Can he really win this race if his best spin for being unable to perform the most basic duty of a senator is “you people should sympathize with me”?

Politico reported a few days ago that Oz is moving to make Fetterman’s health a central issue in the race, as well he should. It’d be political malpractice not to:

This week, his campaign put out two statements ridiculing Fetterman’s diet and accusing him of being too ill to withstand debates. Oz and his campaign have also been working behind the scenes to convince prominent conservative figures — including those who were once detractors — to publicly rally around him. Republicans hope that delayed support from influential conservative commentators will help him persuade unenthused rank-and-file GOP voters to come home to him…

On Monday, the Oz campaign used Fetterman’s unwillingness to commit to debates as a way to draw attention to his health. “If John is too sick to debate and is concerned he cannot stand in front of cameras for more than 10 minutes, then he should just say so,” Oz spokesperson Brittany Yanick said Monday.

Strings are also being pulled behind the scenes to get MAGA influencers to rally behind Oz, hoping that doing so will firm up his weak support among populist voters. A month ago the NRSC began plotting a path to 51 Senate seats that doesn’t involve winning Pennsylvania, fearing that Oz might be a lost cause against Fetterman. But the last few polls have been encouraging — Oz trails by four or five points, not double digits — and now GOPers are quietly hopeful that he can close the gap. A key reason, of course, is that it’s increasingly clear Fetterman won’t be back to normal before Election Day, assuming he ever is. “The feeling on the Republican side is Oz has gained his footing back over the last couple of weeks,” said one GOP consultant to McClatchy. “I think voters are moving from how his medical condition affects him to how it affects them.”


That’s well put. And every time Fetterman dodges a debate, it’s another occasion for those voters to wonder.

Exit question: Is abortion about to become a liability for Oz in Pennsylvania? Read this. The good news is that if he suddenly and opportunistically pivots to a more moderate stance, it’ll be very easy to believe that that’s his true position.

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