Every election cycle has one. That absurd farce of a race that hardly seems like it can be real. This year the honors go to the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and its clown car of a Senate campaign. There are 13 million people in the Keystone State and somehow it has come down to Republican Dr. Mehmet Oz and Democrat John Fetterman to serve in the upper house of the Congress. Where is DJ Jazzy Jeff when you need him?
By dint of a coin toss backstage, I’ll start with Dr. Oz. But where to begin? Oz is the Trump backed candidate, but he’s running like Mitt Romney, with all of the electric Utah energy that entails. There is a kind of Mid-Atlantic Republican who sort of apologizes for it — Oz oozes that. Because of this, there may be no other major GOP candidate in the entire midterm more out of step with the zeitgeist of the party than the mild-mannered, perfectly coiffed Republican.
Oz also has a demographic problem: as a daytime TV star and wellness guru, the group he should naturally appeal to is suburban women. The problem is that suburban women are the only group among whom Republicans have lost support in the past year. That’s not his fault, but it’s like being a fastball hitter who only sees breaking balls: you have to adjust — and Oz hasn’t. Even his viral crudités faux pas seemed directed at Martha Stewart-watchers, not NASCAR dads.
Now on to Fetterman. Let’s set aside the medical stuff for a moment and start from a baseline. He has the vibe of a Trump-endorsed Republican. He embodies the populist energy that Oz just can’t muster. With his gargantuan frame wrapped in a hoodie and bald head, he looks more like a guy you odon’t mess with in a bar than a Senate candidate. But behind that facade lies some troubling insights.
For example there was the time in 2013 when Fetterman pulled a shotgun on an unarmed black man who was jogging because he thought he heard gunshots. That’s usually the stuff of protest marches — and yet nobody seems to discuss it, including, incredibly, Oz. Then there is the fact that the supposed working-class hero was living on his rich parents’ dime until he was forty-nine years old. He’s literally the guy mouthing off on the internet from his mom’s basement.
Finally there is the matter of Fetterman’s stroke. That’s a dicey thing for voters, because nobody wants to punish a candidate for something that isn’t their fault, though Oz suggested that maybe Fetterman should have eaten more vegetables. But compassion doesn’t change the fact that the candidate has struggled to speak in his sparse appearances since returning to the trail. How would that affect his ability to function as a senator?
It becomes obvious very quickly that these two are not the prize hogs at the Bloomsburg Fair. And yet, Pennsylvania does need a second senator, so one of them has to win. At the moment Fetterman has a solid but not decisive lead of between five and eight percentage points, depending on the poll, but there are signs the race is tightening.
One of the most astute observers of American voters, particularly in her home state of Pennsylvania is Salena Zito, who famously said of Trump in 2015, his voters take him seriously but not literally and his detractors take him literally but not seriously. Zito spent some time on the trail with Oz and reported back that he has some impressive retail politics chops, as she put it, “If there’s one thing Mr. Oz can’t be accused of during this Senate race with Democratic lieutenant governor John Fetterman, it’s failing to show up. He’s seemingly everywhere, except the airwaves.”
Oz obviously needs to run more ads, and eventually will, but in Pennsylvania, in-person voter outreach can be hugely effective. In red-leaning areas like Scranton and Wilkes-Barre, Oz’s ability to get people excited about his so-far stagnant campaign could be the key to scratching out a win. And of course, there will also be a Trump rally in September to fan the base’s flames.
Thus far this race, which in all likelihood will decide the fate of the Senate, has been an affair or name-calling about veggie plates, mansions, who does or doesn’t live in New Jersey and who is or isn’t out of touch. Neither candidate has latched onto a core issue, neither has announced a clear platform, both seem to be riding the national wind, hoping for the best. If one can break out of this mold and really start connecting to voters on issues they care about, it could be a game changer. But so far, neither has shown the slightest capacity to do so — and the clown car goes rolling along.