Fetterman’s stroke recovery and ability to serve dominated the aftermath of his only debate with Mehmet Oz (R-PA). That’s not what his campaign wanted to be talking about in the final two weeks before Election Day, in a race that was trending toward Oz.
But Fetterman was still leading in the polls before the debate. He is up a slender 1.3 percentage points in the RealClearPolitics polling average. Oz needed something to change the dynamics of the race more than he did.
Not debating would have been risky. Fetterman’s camp has been dogged about transparency about his medical condition ever since he suffered a stroke in the spring. There was a protracted dispute over the debate ground rules and what accommodations would be made for Fetterman in the hall.
Those questions would have been intensified if Fetterman declined to debate Oz. But actually showing up for the debate answered them definitively — the Democratic candidate is still struggling in ways that could lead voters to question his capacity to function as a senator.
Avoiding the debate would have at least left room for doubt. It is very difficult for an opposing campaign to effectively raise health questions without appearing mean-spirited. When one NBC News reporter noted Fetterman’s difficulties speaking and processing information, many of her colleagues sided with the Democrat. That suggests the media coverage would have been forgiving if Fetterman had decided to take a pass on the debate.
Now there is a visual. There is audio. Fetterman had a hard time answering questions or engaging in the debate in a way that is unusual even in this era of novice and unorthodox candidates. And even after having debated, he has not made much of a commitment pertinent to his ability to recover fully.
Oz has closed in on Fetterman to the point that not many voters would need to doubt the lieutenant governor could serve for the race to tip toward the Republicans. Fetterman’s halting fracking answer could be a problem for him on the merits as well.
MSNBC and liberal Twitter pushed back with the argument that concerns about Fetterman’s health were essentially abelist, no different than objecting to Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-IL) using a wheelchair or numerous senators wearing eyeglasses. There are also plenty of news stories about what Fetterman’s willingness to go through with the debate meant to stroke survivors in Pennsylvania and across the country.
There is a basic insight that successful Democratic campaigns outside the bluest of areas must comprehend, however: Liberal Twitter is not representative of the broader electorate. And the new conventional wisdom on the Left that Fetterman has a fundamental human right to serve in the Senate in his current condition contradicts weeks of assurances that he was basically fine.
This isn’t the only Fetterman campaign decision that will be second-guessed if he loses. More than any other candidate in a competitive Senate race, he has embraced President Joe Biden and appeared with him on the trail.
Biden’s job approval rating in Pennsylvania is 38%, according to Civiqs. That’s lower than his standing in the national polling averages. The remaining undecided voters are likely to disapprove of Biden’s performance in office. Biden and former President Barack Obama already have an appearance scheduled in the state just days before the election.
Pennsylvania still represents the Democrats’ best opportunity to flip a GOP-held seat with the retirement of Sen. Pat Toomey (R-PA). Oz is a first-time candidate. The Senate is currently split 50-50.
Many voters who simply want a senator who will be a reliable vote for the Democratic agenda and Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) for majority leader will find Fetterman adequate. Others will find his perseverance in the face of undeniable adversity inspiring. And plenty of elderly senators have continued to serve.
It is less clear that this is how the average swing voter will react to Fetterman’s debate showing. The Senate is also a deliberative body where oration is important. A state could benefit from an influential senator who is writing bills, active on committees, and in play for leadership roles. Will voters have confidence Fetterman can be that kind of senator?
The answer to that question may turn out to be the most important one of the midterm campaign.