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4 takeaways from the Fetterman-Oz debate

Pennsylvania Senate candidates Lt. Gov. John Fetterman (D) and Mehmet Oz (R) squared off in their first and only debate in Harrisburg, Pa., on Oct. 25. (Video: JM Rieger/The Washington Post)
6 min

Tuesday night brought the lone debate in what could be the most consequential 2022 Senate race in the country. Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. John Fetterman (D) faced off with Republican Mehmet Oz two weeks before Election Day, and both sides say their contest could determine a tight race for the Senate majority.

Fetterman has led the race by double digits, but Oz has surged as Republican-leaning voters have rallied and the environment generally appears to have improved for the GOP in recent weeks. The Pennsylvania race is now within the margin of error in most polls, placing it alongside pivotal states like Georgia and Nevada.

Republicans have sought to make an issue of Fetterman’s halting public performances as he recovers from a stroke suffered during the campaign; his doctor has said he continues to have auditory processing problems.

Below are some takeaways from the debate.

1. How Fetterman did

An obvious reason many tuned in to Tuesday’s debate was the question of how Fetterman would do. His campaign sought to significantly lower expectations in advance — taking a page out of Herschel Walker’s playbook — recognizing that he could be in for a rough night.

And it was a rough night.

Fetterman quickly sought to address the “elephant in the room,” acknowledging in his opening statement that he would misspeak and later pointing to his reliance on captioning.

“I had a stroke,” Fetterman said, before referring to Oz: “He’s never let me forget that.”

But while Oz’s campaign has pointed to Fetterman’s health in the past, the GOP nominee clearly wagered that he didn’t need to focus on that — that viewers and his allies would do so without him highlighting the issue. About the closest Oz came to referencing Fetterman’s health was when he said, “Obviously, I wasn’t clear enough for you to understand this,” and repeated one of his answers.

Fetterman was halting, in keeping with his recent public performances, including an NBC News interview. He began by saying “Good night,” rather than “Good evening.” He often started a thought and shifted course without finishing it. He used the wrong words. He mostly tried to play it safe by sticking to boilerplate issue positions rather than going in-depth on policies.

When it came to his health, he was given two chances to commit to releasing fuller medical records, and he demurred both times, arguing that his presence and his doctors’ say-so should be good enough for voters.

“ … If my doctor believes I am fit to serve, that’s what I believe is appropriate,” he said.

The question is how much this matters to voters. A CBS/YouGov poll released earlier Tuesday showed little movement since last month on whether people think Fetterman is fit to serve. And to the extent voters say he’s not, the movement has been among Republicans. About 6 in 10 independents and 55 percent of respondents overall said he was in good enough health to serve.

That could change after a high-profile debate, but thus far the needle hasn’t moved much — even as Oz has gained in the polls (but perhaps for other reasons).

2. Oz’s abortion answer

Beyond that, the debate was notable for two responses that should feature in the stretch run of the campaign.

For Oz, it was his answer on abortion. Like other Republicans in key races, he distanced himself from Sen. Lindsey O. Graham’s (R-S.C.) proposed 15-week abortion ban, saying he would oppose anything that prevents states from deciding the issue.

But at one point, he enunciated this in a way Democrats will surely highlight: While talking about who he thinks should decide the issue, he lumped in “local political leaders” along with women and doctors.

“I want women, doctors, local political leaders letting the democracy that’s always allowed our nation to thrive to put the best ideas forward so states can decide for themselves,” Oz said.

Democrats believed they had a gotcha moment: This is the logical extension of Republicans’ position on the issue, but Oz momentarily wedged politicians into the Democrats’ talking point about how abortion is a choice for women and their doctors.

Democrats want to keep things focused on abortion rights, and Oz might have given them a way to do that — even as he otherwise tried to play it safe on the issue.

3. Fetterman on fracking

For Fetterman, the most striking response was on hydraulic fracturing, or fracking — a major issue in Pennsylvania given the prominence of the industry there.

The moderators noted that both candidates have appeared to take both sides of this issue at various times. At the debate, Fetterman tried to assert, “I have always supported fracking.”

In fact, Fetterman said quite the opposite as recently as 2018. As CNN has reported, he said on YouTube while running for lieutenant governor, “I don’t support fracking at all, and I never have.”

Fetterman has walked a finer line on the campaign trail, saying he’s supported fracking “as long as it’s done environmentally sound and making sure that we’re not contaminating our waterways.” But he offered a broader, unqualified position Tuesday night.

And when the moderators again referenced those 2018 comments and pressed him on the apparent switch, Fetterman could muster only: “I do support fracking. … I support fracking and I stand — I support fracking.”

(Worth noting: When the moderator was posing the follow-up to Fetterman, they wrongly indicated the question was going to Oz.)

4. The fight over the middle

Both candidates seemed to be largely tacking to the middle — in a reflection of just how crucial independent voters will be in a tight race in a swing state.

In addition to his move on fracking, Fetterman assured that he doesn’t support adding more Supreme Court justices, as some liberals do, saying he preferred to focus on when he disagrees with the court: “It’s not about changing the rules; it’s acknowledging where we’re at.” (One thing Fetterman assured he still supports: nuking the filibuster.)

Oz, for his part, left open the possibility that he would’ve supported retiring Sen. Patrick J. Toomey’s (R-Pa.) gun-control bill, which received little GOP support, while emphasizing he wasn’t in the Senate at the time and would have tried to make it better. Oz said there were “parts of that bill that I like a lot.” And the above exchange aside, his answers on abortion were clearly intended to carve a middle ground.

Oz was also asked about whether he would back Trump, whose endorsement proved huge in his winning the primary. Oz initially demurred, saying, “I will support whoever the Republican Party puts up.” But when pressed, he was more specific — that he would back his benefactor. “I would support Donald Trump if he decided to run for president,” Oz said.