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Politics can be a nasty business. Every utterance from a candidate is fair game, even dating back to their teen years. Ask Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez about the critics who tried to weaponize a video of her dancing with friends in college, or Abby Broyles, whose poor behavior during her kid’s middle-school sleepover ushered her from a House race in Oklahoma. Spouses, kids, and parents become fair game, too. And all of that is even before journalists, allies in the parties and rivals seeking the same seat start to ask about a candidate’s health.
Which brings us to Tuesday’s Pennsylvania primary for an open U.S. Senate seat. The Democratic front-runner, Lieutenant Gov. John Fetterman, canceled events on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, citing an unspecified health issue. On Sunday, he and his wife disclosed that he had been hospitalized for a stroke. Fetterman, 52, said there was no lasting damage and that he’d soon be back on the trail.
Still, his campaign announced on Monday that he wouldn’t be joining his supporters on Tuesday night to hear the results of the primary, and that his wife, Gisele, would instead join the crowd near Pittsburgh.
This is the kind of development that one could easily see rivals using to their advantage. Despite Fetterman making clear in a statement that doctors told him he didn’t “suffer any cognitive damage,” the existence of the stroke itself is the type of unplanned occurrence a consultant working on a lagging campaign might be tempted to exploit.
Yet the contours of the Pennsylvania primary, mere days before the votes are counted, mean such tricks would be the wrong strategy, at least for now.
Fetterman has enjoyed a consistent double-digit lead in the polls, is known statewide, and has captured the attention of national Democrats with his decidedly non-traditional approach to politics, as TIME’s Charlotte Alter chronicled in a recent profile. And Republicans appear to be in a three-way grudge match for their party’s nomination, perhaps meaning they’re not as focused on potential general election challengers.
But it still remains remarkable, however, that most of Fetterman’s rivals—on both sides of the political divide—put out seemingly sincere wishes for his fast return. This is not always the case.
Among Republicans, Mehmet Oz, the celebrity doctor running with the backing of ex-President Donald Trump, issued a clear get-well message with no wiggle room or caveat. “I have cared for atrial fibrillation patients and witnessed the miracles of modern medicine in the treatment of strokes, so I am thankful that you received care so quickly,” Oz tweeted. “My whole family is praying for your speedy recovery.” David McCormick, a business executive who has the backing of the party’s Wall Street wing and some conservatives, did the same: “Wishing you a fast recovery.”
And Kathy Barnette, whose campaign has recently taken off despite past statements that might relegate her to the G.O.P.’s heap of unelectable write-offs, said in a tweet that she was praying for Fetterman, adding, “We want you healthy for our race this fall.”
Among Democrats, the hymn was sung in near unison. “Hayley and I are keeping John and his family in our prayers and wishing him a full and speedy recovery,” said Rep. Connor Lamb, who was surprised to hear the news during a television interview and remains down 31 points behind Fetterman. And state representative Malcolm Kenyatta, who is six points behind Lamb, was gracious in his note: “My prayers are with him and his family as he recovers from this stroke. I look forward to seeing him back on the campaign trail soon.”
Part of this is attributable to timing. The primary is Tuesday, and many votes have already been cast. It’s never a good look—although it can be an effective one—to kick an opponent while he’s recovering. The results at this point in the primary give Fetterman an advantage that almost nothing could shake, although Democrats are privately skeptical of the polling that portrays him as an unstoppable force.
Across the aisle, even the slightest misstep could be costly. After all, 15% of Republicans told one pollster over the weekend that they were still undecided.
To be clear, such civility—no matter how performative it may be—is hardly the rule. In most cases, any perceived weakness is one that is to be exploited. It’s Candidate Boot Camp 101: turn a rival’s strongest asset into a weakness and rework your own deficits into advantages. It is how Barack Obama’s relative inexperience morphed into “Change” and John McCain’s decades-long resume became the same-old politics in 2008.
No one knows the trick better than Trump. Whereas there is a long history of campaigns using whisper campaigns to foster doubts about a rival’s health and honor, Trump just blurted it out, raising questions without evidence in 2016 about Hillary Clinton’s health, a cynical strategy that paid dividends when she had an initially unexplained episode at a 9/11 anniversary event.
And, for a slice of Trump’s base, it worked; 68% of Republicans told pollsters in 2016 they thought Clinton’s health was poor or below average in the wake of her wobbly Sept. 11 appearance.
If Fetterman wins his party’s nomination as expected Tuesday night, the coming weeks could see his Republican opponent or an outside group trying to make hay over his recent medical episode. But there’s a good reason to think that won’t happen, at least not through candidate-controlled channels. Pennsylvania’s purple hue means candidates aren’t trying to just turn out their base; the numbers of those hardcore partisans aren’t sufficient. There are a substantial number of voters they still need to win over, including the 15% of the voter rolls that claim no party affiliation. Voters with no partisan identification are growing faster than either of the political parties, according to state data, and are likely the entire margin of victory.
After all, while Trump beat Clinton there in 2016, Joe Biden narrowly carried it over Trump four years later, and retains a deep reservoir of goodwill in a state where he spent his childhood and where some measure of civility still works.
So, as voters prepare for Tuesday’s vote, the candidates’ efforts at empathy may be as much a signal about a fleeting flash of civility in an otherwise crusty business as it is a hint about the behavior they think Pennsylvania voters could reward. Voters may interpret those efforts as honorable, even if the candidates themselves are, at worst, delaying the inevitable questions about who is fit—or not—to serve.
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