Dems defend Fetterman’s low profile amid GOP health attacks: ‘Why should he help Oz?’

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On Wednesday, Fetterman agreed to a debate with Oz later in October, a move that comes after a fusillade of GOP attacks on his reluctance to commit to going toe-to-toe with Oz. The burly lieutenant governor of Pennsylvania suffered a stroke in May, an episode that has complicated multiple facets of his campaign, including traditional events, interviews and opportunities to verbally spar with his Republican opponent.

The Pennsylvania Democrat has resumed some events and he appeared with President Joe Biden on Monday, all the while keeping up his ubiquitous social media hits on Oz as a wealthy New Jersey carpetbagger in the Keystone State. Fetterman continues to lead Oz in the must-win Pennsylvania Senate race, a seat held by retiring Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.), where a loss would severely hinder Republicans’ chances of flipping the Senate this fall. A loss in Pennsylvania would mean they need to flip at least two Democratic seats instead of one — hardly a sure thing given how close a half-dozen Senate races are at the moment.

Democrats warn that Oz is trying to trap Fetterman in a frantic attempt to regain momentum after trailing in every public poll this summer. Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chair Gary Peters (D-Mich.) said Fetterman is “getting better every day. I’m completely comfortable” with his recovery.

“He just has to keep doing what he’s doing,” Peters said. Republicans’ focus on Fetterman’s health, he added, “shows desperation, they know they’re in trouble, big trouble. I’m confident we’re going to win in Pennsylvania.”

The importance of the race to the GOP has prompted an all-out attack from Oz and Toomey about whether Fetterman is up to the Senate job as he recovers from his stroke. In an interview, Toomey said highlighting questions about Fetterman’s health is “not something I enjoy doing, right? You feel bad for the guy. It’s a terrible misfortune to have a bad stroke, but I do think that’s an important, relevant issue.”

“He claims he’s fine. But his appearances wouldn’t suggest that,” Toomey added.

Fetterman’s speech in public is at times halted and jumbled, and his auditory processing remains an issue, a key point in discussions of how a potential October debate would play out. Fetterman told POLITICO on Wednesday that he has “every ability to talk about all of these issues and have a full debate” and that his auditory processing gets better every day.

Brittany Yanick, a spokesperson for Oz, said that “Pennsylvania voters deserve to hear about [Fetterman’s] radical liberal policies and to know that he’s healthy enough to serve.” She mocked Fetterman’s somewhat vague debate commitment: “John Fetterman has agreed to debate at a SECRET DEBATE.”

If anything, Democrats see all that focus on Fetterman’s health backfiring. Senate Majority Whip Duck Durbin (D-Ill.) said that “most Americans understand that he’s fighting two battles: one for his health and one for his political office.” Durbin is holding fundraisers with Fetterman in Chicago this weekend and said he saw no need for Fetterman to change a campaign schedule that’s relatively restrained compared with his frenetic pace before the stroke.

And Democrats said they are sensing no worry or panic among their supporters about Fetterman’s health or Oz’s attacks. Peters said no Democratic donors have raised the issue of Fetterman’s health to him. Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.) said he visited 36 Pennsylvania counties over August and “didn’t hear a word about the question of his recovery from a stroke being an impediment to being either a good candidate or a good senator.”

Pennsylvanians have “seen parents and loved ones and siblings and children and all kinds of people and families have recovered from stroke, recovered from heart disease. And they know you can not only recover but you’ll thrive. And that’s where he’ll be,” Casey said.

Just this year, Sens. Ben Ray Luján
(D-N.M.) and Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) also suffered strokes. Lujan has spoken to Fetterman several times in recent weeks, encouraging him and reminding the Pennsylvania Democrat to take deep breaths and enjoy life as he balances his recovery with the Senate race.

For many voters, the race is just beginning, now that summer is over and the ad waves are sloshing with super PAC money from the Senate Leadership Fund, a Mitch McConnell-aligned group that’s flooding the airwaves with $34 million in ads during the final stretch. Much of the GOP focus is on crime in Pennsylvania, but there’s also relentless Republican questions about whether Fetterman is healthy enough to be a senator.

National Republican Senatorial Committee Chair Rick Scott (R-Fla.) said that “it’s legitimate to understand whether somebody could serve. We don’t know enough about his health … he’s not really doing events, when you see him he doesn’t look good.”

Democrats say that’s all a desperation play from a struggling candidate and a party that needs to keep Pennsylvania red. Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), who did an event with Fetterman this summer, said that he has “zero” questions about Fetterman’s capacity to be a senator and that he trusted the candidate’s decision-making on campaign tactics.

“Oz is behind. He’s trying to do everything he can do to throw shit at the wall to see if it sticks,” said Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), a former chair of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. “I’d rather be Fetterman than be Oz. But that doesn’t mean this race is over.”

Fetterman’s commitment to an October debate may blunt some of the GOP attacks over the next few weeks, although there’s no exact date set yet and Republicans aren’t signaling they are about to let up.

Lujan said that maybe they should consider a different line of attack.

“I don’t know that I’d want to debate Mr. Fetterman. He’s a very smart person and he’s a great leader,” Lujan said. “So I would just say to Mr. Oz: Careful what you ask for, man.”

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