Want to Know Why Washington Is Broken? Look at the Senate Race in Pennsylvania

6 minute read

It’s no secret that Americans don’t much like what’s happening in Washington right now. A full 41% of voters don’t think their representative deserves another term, Gallup found in July. Before the 1994 midterms, a similar poll found 28% of voters saying the same, just before Democrats took a shellacking.

With just two months to go until Election Day and mere weeks before the early-voting windows open in some states, Democrats and Republicans alike recognize the final sprint is likely to be won or lost based not on grand pronouncements about policy but rather on the ephemera that no campaigns prepare for. It therefore falls to the voters to decide for themselves what rises to a credible campaign issue, and what is just a curiosity that might be fun to send around to their neighborhood group chats.

In other words, voters get to decide what’s important, and their discernment could mean picking a fun persona, or ditching a stodgy one, over someone who can actually deliver.

Take, for instance, the Senate race unfurling in Pennsylvania to replace Sen. Pat Toomey, who is calling it quits after 12 years in the Senate and six in the House. A messy GOP primary delivered a nominee of Dr. Mehmet Oz, a former heart surgeon-turned-TV personality who had the backing of former President Donald Trump. Democrats, meanwhile, nominated the state’s lieutenant governor, John Fetterman; a more out-of-the-box character would be tough to spot on their electoral field this year, as TIME’s Charlotte Alter captured in her profile of Fetterman in May, before a stroke curbed his campaign schedule and forced him to skip the first debate.

Both parties have ample dirt on their rivals. Oz has faced questions about his residency, how many houses he owns, and his unclear positions on abortion when rape or incest are factors. Fetterman deserves his own questioning on his claims of supporting for unrestricted abortion rights in a state where such access enjoys an all-time high but still short of a majority. Fetterman’s backing of Medicare for All and an increase in the number of refugees admitted to the United States are also worth scrutiny.

But in the last few days, much of the debate has gone sideways in a big way. After Fetterman, still recovering from his stroke, declined a debate invite, Oz appeared to mock his opponent’s health problems—not a good look for someone trying to play up his experience in the healthcare system. Trump, meanwhile, unleashed a truly bizarre line of attack on Fetterman during a rally on Saturday in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., accusing the Democrat without evidence of being a junkie. Trump also derided Fetterman’s wardrobe, which is admittedly casual: “He comes in with a sweatsuit on. I’ve never seen him wear a suit. A dirty, dirty, dirty sweatsuit. It’s really disgusting,” Trump said. (As Fetterman bemoaned to TIME in May: “If I wear a suit, I get sh-t; if I wear shorts, I get sh-t.”)

Now, before anyone starts to think this is an example of Republicans alone taking the cheap-shot road, run the tape to a few days earlier, when what one calls chopped vegetables became a matter of political debate. Back in April, Oz recorded a video from an imaginary supermarket he called Wegners, apparently conflating Wegmans and Redners, two stores that do exist. In the produce section, Oz lamented the price of fresh vegetables while picking up the ingredients for “crudité” for his wife. Fetterman mocked his opponent as an elitist in a state where most would call that a “veggie tray.”

A ridiculous spat? Probably. But the Senate is already tied at 50-50, and even the most incremental of movements can spell victory or disaster for the balance of Biden’s first term. If Republicans net just one Senate seat, they’ll be able to stymie Biden’s agenda on everything except nominees and budgets, although on the latter they can get creative in their obstruction, especially if they have a compliant parliamentarian. Which means a truly competitive race like the one in Pennsylvania can get very intense, very quickly.

Ultimately, voters get to decide what to ignore and what to consider as a proxy for the candidate’s character. When Mitt Romney ran for the White House in 2008, his critics were relentless in bringing up the story about how he tied his dog’s crate to the roof of the family car as they headed north for vacation. When the dog became ill, Romney simply hosed the roof-housed dog off, and the family continued the trip. For Romney’s critics, it was a sign of his heartless approach to a four-legged member of the family, while for Romney’s own kids who shared the story with The Boston Globe for a 2007 profile, it was proof of his efficiency. To the aides on both Romney presidential bids, it was a source of unending frustration.

It was the same for Hillary Clinton’s legal use of a private email server while Secretary of State. Her critics saw just another example why the former First Lady and Senator couldn’t be trusted as she sought the White House for a second time on her own. Voters decided it mattered, even if the Justice Department did not; when the margin is so small, such issues can resonate more than either candidates’ actual views on the issues. “But her emails!” became a proxy for voters looking for a reason to reject Clinton for any reason beyond her gender. As President, neither Romney nor Clinton were likely to do much in the areas of pet transport or emails, but they mattered in that moment.

Which brings the microcosm of this election back to Pennsylvania. Fetterman has been incredibly absent from the trail, and understandably so. Skipping a debate isn’t a choice taken lightly. Republicans are beginning to question Fetterman’s fitness for office—a dangerous play that seldom works, but it can. Yet they are also gouging him on his clothes and imagined drug use. And rather than smack Oz as a carpetbagger beholden to Trump, Fetterman’s team raised more than $1 million off a bad produce-aisle vamp.

To be clear, voters get to choose what matters. But both parties seem determined to drive the conversation away from things lawmakers are actually hired to do, like navigate a world in which federal abortion rights no longer exist, economic policy impacts daily lives, and a pot of infrastructure dollars still needs allocating. Instead, they’re talking about the extraneous, like what to call vegetables and the merits of hooded sweatshirts. Voters can decide their ballots based on either, but they should also be prepared for what happens if neither Sen. Hoodie nor Sen. Crudité is able to deliver on the things they actually want from their elected officials.

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Write to Philip Elliott at philip.elliott@time.com