Pressure mounts on Fetterman as Pennsylvania Senate race tightens

Democratic candidate John Fetterman is facing new pressure despite signs that the Pennsylvania Senate race is tightening a little more than a month before Election Day.

Two new polls this week have shown Fetterman’s lead over Republican candidate Mehmet Oz shrinking, a development that comes as he faces growing scrutiny over his health, Republicans attack him on his law enforcement record as lieutenant governor, and Oz makes some notable endorsements.

While Fetterman’s allies say the latest tightening in the polls is a natural result of Election Day approaching, it also raises the stakes for the Democrat as he looks to maintain his lead ahead of a crucial debate against Oz later this month.

An Emerson College Polling and The Hill survey released Friday showed Fetterman leading Oz 45 percent to 43 percent, within the poll’s margin of error and down from the Democrat’s 4-point lead in August.

Meanwhile, a Fox News poll released Wednesday showed 45 percent of registered Pennsylvania voters said they would vote for Fetterman if the Senate election were held today, compared to 41 percent for Oz. A Fox News poll of the race conducted in July showed Fetterman with an 11-point lead.

“This race has always been tied and determined to get tighter, and that’s certainly a cause for concern, but I can guarantee you it’s not out of the blue,” said TJ Rooney, former chairman of Pennsylvania’s Democratic Party.

The Fetterman campaign is “not caught flat-footed,” he added.

In recent years, Pennsylvania has lived up to its reputation as a swing state. President Biden won the state by less than 2 points in 2020, while former President Trump won the state by less than 1 point in 2016.

And most voters tend to start paying more attention to the election after Labor Day, when the primary season is over and the campaigns go into general election mode.

“Last time I checked, we’re in Pennsylvania,” said Joe Calvello, a spokesman for Fetterman’s campaign. “We don’t come here to play. These are the big leagues.”

Calvello touted the campaign’s ground game, pointing to a Fetterman rally last weekend in the Lehigh Valley that drew more than 1,000 people.

“We feel good going into this stretch because of what we’re seeing on the ground,” Calvello said.

But Oz’s allies and Republicans say the closing gap is not just a function of Election Day approaching in a competitive state, but rather a sign that Oz is gaining traction with voters.

“We came off a tough primary and it always takes a little time to resettle, but now I think Republicans are united around Dr. Oz’s campaign,” said Barney Keller, a spokesman for Oz. “They know that effort is important in this election, whether we want safer streets or an economy that works for the middle class.”

Other Republicans argue that the tight polls have more to do with Fetterman himself.

“Oz is just not Fetterman,” said Keith Naughton, a GOP strategist who has worked on Pennsylvania campaigns. “[Fetterman] is a bad candidate, and he’s the candidate the Republicans wanted to run against.”

The Cook Political Report changed its assessment of the Pennsylvania Senate race to “lean Democrat” in August.

But beyond the tight polls, Oz has since garnered several notable endorsements, including from former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge (R) on Thursday.

While a former Republican governor on the surface endorsing a GOP Senate candidate might not seem out of the ordinary, Ridge is arguably a different kind of high-profile Republican than the others who have endorsed Oz. The former governor broke with the GOP in 2020 and endorsed President Biden over then-President Trump.

Oz’s allies this week have also touted his endorsement from the Pennsylvania State Troopers Association, which spilled its ticket and endorsed Democratic gubernatorial nominee Josh Shapiro. In addition, Oz won the approval of the American Chamber of Commerce.

Oz’s allies say the latest endorsements, along with Trump’s, are signs of a Republican coalition the celebrity doctor-turned-politician is forming, bucking the Democratic strategy of painting Oz as too extreme or Trumpian .

Rooney also noted the importance of Ridge’s endorsement of Oz, saying the former governor remains a relevant player in Pennsylvania’s political landscape.

“The notion that well-respected Republicans are supporting Oz absolutely sends a signal, there’s no question about it,” he said.

There’s also the argument that the Commonwealth Senate race is a higher priority for Republicans who are growing increasingly pessimistic about their gubernatorial prospects.

The same Emerson College Polling-The Hill survey found Shapiro leading Republican candidate Doug Mastriano 51 percent to 41 percent. The nonpartisan Cook Political Report moved the race’s rating from “lean Democratic” to “likely Democratic.”

“Because everybody has abandoned the gubernatorial race, every Republican has kind of rallied behind Oz,” Rooney said.

One Democratic strategist said Mastriano has set the bar low for the Oz campaign.

“You can’t set the bar lower than ‘look at me, I’m running a better campaign than Doug Mastriano,’ who I think recently announced 40 days of fasting and prayer,” the strategist said. “If you would have told me a year ago, without even knowing the nominees, that after Labor Day the Republican nominee would be endorsed by the Chamber of Commerce and Tom Ridge, I think it makes sense that they’re all Republicans. ”

As the campaign season enters its final month, the contrast in messaging between Fetterman and Oz could not be more different.

While both candidates have addressed the state of the nation’s economy, which many Americans fear is headed for a recession, Fetterman has hammered Oz on the issue of abortion, while Oz focuses on crime.

“Answering this question is so difficult for him because he knows Pennsylvania will not stand for this. He would vote to ban abortion statewide if given the chance,” Fetterman said in a statement Friday. “His view on this issue is way out of step with Pennsylvania, but that’s why he’s hiding.”

Oz’s campaign has said he is “pro-life” but supports exceptions for cases of rape, incest and protecting the life of the mother.

Meanwhile, Oz’s campaign has sought to paint Fetterman as weak on crime, pointing to his record on the issue as mayor of Braddock, Pennsylvania, and as lieutenant governor.

“Everyone is waiting and excited for the debate on the 25th because it will expose Fetterman for what his record really is [on crime]”, said a national Republican operative.

Fetterman’s campaign rolled out an ad earlier this week in which the Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, sheriff touted his record.

Ultimately, however, Republicans and Democrats agree that the economy will likely be the deciding factor.

“At the end of the day, the deciding factor in a close election will be economic issues,” Rooney said.

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