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After stroke, John Fetterman takes small steps back into Pa. Senate race

Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. John Fetterman makes a campaign stop at the Horn O Plenty restaurant in Bedford, Pa., on April 3. (Jeff Swensen for The Washington Post)
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From a small box in the top right-hand corner of the Zoom screen, Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. John Fetterman appeared, throwing up both arms to gesture surprise to the several dozen campaign volunteers who signed on Tuesday evening for a social media training.

“Heeyyyy everybody, hey!” Fetterman said, according to video of the session, provided to The Washington Post. “And, well one, thank you all, and let me just stop by saying, you know, we’re not the special guests, you’re all the special ones and I just want to thank you for doing this and, and, helping this campaign.”

The brief greeting to supporters is the first unedited glimpse of Fetterman since he suffered a near-fatal stroke nearly two months ago, sidelining him days before the Pennsylvania Democratic Senate primary that he won in May. He has remained off the campaign trail as he’s focused on his recovery, his absence sparking questions about whether he’d be mentally and physically well enough for a vigorous campaign in one of the most consequential races in the country.

In the Zoom video viewed by The Post, a smiling Fetterman sat beside his wife, Gisele, wearing his signature oversized hoodie, this one blue. A “Fetterman for Senate” banner hung on a white brick wall behind them. While on camera only for a few minutes, he spoke clearly and did not exhibit any obvious signs of impaired speech.

“I’m never, I never feel entitled to have support, but the fact that you do, I’m so grateful for that, and you know, from the bottom of my heart I want to thank you and what you’re willing to do to help us flip this seat. Thank you so much,” Fetterman told the volunteers on the call.

Pennsylvania Democratic Senate candidate John Fetterman joined a campaign Zoom call on July 12, one of his first appearances since he suffered a stroke in May. (Video: The Washington Post)

In recent days, Fetterman has begun to take baby steps back into the fray, though there remains no set plans for him to resume traditional campaign events with voters across the state. Fetterman’s advisers are adamant that he will be ready to take on his Republican opponent, celebrity talk show host and heart surgeon Mehmet Oz, in November.

In a statement to The Post, Oz’s campaign acknowledged Fetterman’s health status and then took a swipe at his politics.

“As a physician, Dr. Oz has performed thousands of heart surgeries so he understands how scary this condition is for the patient and family and has been praying for John Fetterman’s recovery,” said Brittany Yanick, an Oz spokeswoman. “Now that he’s back, John Fetterman can’t hide from voters forever. Pennsylvanians will soon learn about John Fetterman’s radical ideas ... We are glad John is healthy again so we can focus less on his heart and hoodie and more on the crazy far-left ideas he has in his head.”

Candidate challenges, primary scars have GOP worried about Senate chances

Party leaders in the state are eager to see Fetterman get back out on the campaign trail. During the primary he would do multiple stops a day, speaking to large crowds and staying for selfies with anyone who wanted a photo.

“Democrats are concerned because John is a terrific in-person campaigner and we’re worried because each day he can’t get out and campaign in person is a day we could take another step to victory,” said former Pennsylvania governor Edward G. Rendell.

Fetterman surprised volunteers with an in-person visit at a field office on Saturday and, according to a video posted on Twitter, told them he’d be back on the trail “soon.” After the quick greeting on the Zoom call Tuesday, his campaign said, he appeared virtually at a fundraiser hosted by JStreetPAC, the political arm of the liberal pro-Israel group. That event lasted more than an hour, and he took questions from donors. Next Thursday he’s scheduled to do his first in-person events, including an afternoon fundraiser and then a sold-out private gathering hosted by Democratic Jewish Outreach Pennsylvania, a political action committee, that is closed to the news media.

JStreet spokesman Logan Bayroff confirmed Fetterman’s virtual presence at the hour-long event, which was attended by about 100 people and said he participated in a lengthy back-and-forth exchange with donors for about 25 minutes.

“He sounded good. Obviously he acknowledged that he’s on the road to recovery, but he sounded good,” Bayroff said. “We are fully aware that he’s on the road back to the trail and ... we’re extremely excited and appreciative that he was back out there and made the time to meet with us.”

The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee is hosting a fundraiser for Fetterman in D.C. on Tuesday, headlined by Sen. Robert P. Casey Jr. (D-Pa.) that the candidate isn’t attending. President Biden is scheduled to be in Philadelphia for a Democratic National Committee fundraiser on Wednesday, according to multiple sources, but Fetterman isn’t involved.

Democrats across the state say they remain committed to Fetterman’s candidacy and no one has seriously suggested that he should withdraw from the race because of his health. Joe Calvello, Fetterman’s spokesman, responded to a question about Fetterman not running with a string of profanities.

“John Fetterman will be at the top of the ticket this November,” Calvello said. “Our campaign is running full speed ahead, we are organizing, we are up on TV, John and our team are 100 percent focused on flipping this seat blue.”

Although Fetterman hasn’t been out on the trail physically, he’s been fully engaged and active, his advisers say. On Tuesday, ahead of the Zoom pop-in and virtual appearance at the fundraiser, Fetterman took calls in the morning and had a brainstorming meeting with his communications team. He went for a 4.7-mile walk on a trail near his home in Braddock, Pa., and also did a call with Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.).

“I had a good conversation with John Fetterman about the urgent need to tackle pressing issues for working families in Pennsylvania, Montana, and across the country like lowering the cost of gas, groceries, and prescription drugs,” Tester said in an emailed statement. “He’s not your typical candidate and is exactly the kind of person we need more of in the Senate, and I know he’s hard at work to make that happen in November.”

The Pennsylvania Senate race is crucial to Democrats’ hopes of holding on to their slim majority in a difficult political year. Flipping the seat, currently held by retiring Republican Sen. Patrick J. Toomey, could help blunt expected GOP wins elsewhere.

The state has a long history of swinging between political parties, electing Barack Obama by sizable margins in 2008 and 2012, but picking Toomey in 2010 in that year’s tea party wave. Pennsylvania voters then chose Donald Trump in 2016 and Biden in 2020.

The 52-year-old Fetterman, a towering presence at almost 6 feet and 9 inches, who is rarely seen in a suit and tie, has built a brand on his everyman persona. Many Democrats believe he will appeal to the state’s more independent-minded voters, particularly the working class, against Oz, a wealthy celebrity.

“You couldn’t have a better situation in a worse year,” said T.J. Rooney, former Democratic state party chairman, referring to the match up between Fetterman and Oz. “It’s the yin and the yang, the up and the down, the contrasts, it shapes up as well as you could hope for other than he had a medical setback and that is the 800-pound gorilla in the room.”

Few people have seen Fetterman speak outside of short, scripted appearances filmed and promoted on social media by his campaign. After his stroke, his campaign didn’t reveal the severity of his illness for weeks. On the day of the May primary, Fetterman had surgery to install a pacemaker with a defibrillator, which the campaign officials said doctors told them was to treat atrial fibrillation (A-fib). Nearly three weeks later, his cardiologist revealed that the medical device was needed to treat cardiomyopathy — a disease diagnosis Fetterman first received in 2017 that decreases the amount of blood his heart could pump. Fetterman also later shared that he “almost died.”

The state Democratic Party has until Aug. 15 to replace Fetterman on the ballot, but if anyone is considering that, they’re not saying.

“Who in the hell are you going to replace him with?” Rooney said. “There is definitely no talk and it’s unfathomable and unthinkable at this point.”

Most Democrats are comforted that Fetterman’s absence from the trail is in the dog days of summer when the average voter isn’t tuned in to horserace politics. From his home, Fetterman has trolled Oz on social media, mostly over his residency in New Jersey and tweeted a compilation video of Oz’s many mansions that was viewed more than a million times. Over the July 4 weekend, Fetterman’s campaign flew a plane over the New Jersey shore, where many Philadelphians spend their summer weekends, carrying the message: “Hey Dr. Oz, Welcome Home to NJ! ♥ John.” Then on Thursday, Fetterman’s campaign paid Snooki, the reality star from the late aughts MTV show “Jersey Shore,” to do a Cameo for Oz telling him, “Jersey will not forget you.”

Fetterman has also continued to air TV ads in the state, including one currently running statewide that calls Oz “Doc Hollywood” and attacks him for not living in Pennsylvania.

Mark Alderman, a big-time Democratic donor in the state, said Fetterman’s appeal is his ability to channel the emotions of an angry electorate. Alderman said there is concern among Democratic insiders about whether his health forces him to temper that image.

“He’s a visceral candidate, people are mad, he looks mad, he looks like the guy you want on your side if you’re mad,” Alderman said. “Anything that distracts from his public persona as a tall, strong, vigorous, angry guy is going to be a problem for him in the fall, but we’re not there yet.”

Fetterman also holds the edge over Oz in recent polls, and announced this week that he’d raised $11 million in the second quarter of the year, most of which came in after he won the primary. That huge haul helped quell any nerves Democrats in the state may have felt about their top-of-the-ticket candidate still away from trail, said Alan Kessler, another major Democratic donor in Philadelphia.

“I don’t remember ever seeing anything like that, it’s a good sign of the enthusiasm, the interest, whether it’s the Roe decision or the gun issue or whatever, but it’s almost as though those issues are propelling the campaign even without having the principal,” Kessler said. “Those who were nervous or worried, there couldn’t be a better sign than that.”

“I don’t see anyone pushing panic buttons,” he added.

Oz’s campaign said that he’s done more than 40 in-person events in the state since securing the GOP nomination, after a bruising primary that he won by less than 1,000 votes. While Oz’s campaign is dark on TV, the National Republican Senatorial Committee is airing an attack ad tying Fetterman to Biden.

Oz has recently ramped up his social media activity, tweeting several times a day, and almost daily making a reference to Fetterman as a far-left politician like Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.).

“Mid-week reminder: John Fetterman is endorsed by AOC AND Bernie Sanders. If that doesn’t tell you he’s a socialist, nothing will,” Oz tweeted on Thursday.

On the Tuesday night Zoom call, Fetterman did not mention Oz or discuss any specific issues. As he spoke, he gestured with his hands, placing them over his heart and then making a heart shape with his fingers.

“Let me just say, my career in politics is, was because I won by one vote back in 2005, so what you’re doing is very important and so helping our campaign, so truly thank you. Thank you for getting involved like this,” Fetterman told the volunteers. “I really am very, very grateful.”

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