After weeks of attacks from the right about auditory processing issues resulting from a stroke he suffered in May, John Fetterman took the stage Tuesday night for his only debate with Republican opponent Mehmet Oz.
The debate was the first major televised test for the Democrat, who relied on closed captioning technology as he faced a polished celebrity doctor with years of TV experience. Two weeks from now, Pennsylvania voters will decide who made the better case in one of the most important Senate races in the country.
With the Senate currently split 50-50 between the parties, the race in the Keystone State could help decide who controls the Senate next year. As Democratic incumbents face challenges in states like Georgia and Nevada, the Pennsylvania seat held by retiring Republican Senator Pat Toomey represents one of the Democratic Party’s best opportunities to shore up its majority—and is one Republicans almost certainly need to keep if they want to win control of the upper chamber.
Throughout the year, Fetterman, the current lieutenant governor of the state, led Donald Trump-endorsed Oz in nearly every public poll, sometimes by double digits. But the race has recently tightened. A poll conducted in mid-October found Fetterman leading Oz by six points; another, conducted over the past few days, found him leading by just two.
Here are four key takeaways from Tuesday night’s Pennsylvania Senate debate.
Moderators opened the debate by pointing out the closed captioning screens behind them. They explained to the audience that experienced captioners were on hand to transcribe questions and Oz’s responses in real-time. Fetterman previously said that auditory processing issues resulting from his stroke sometimes make it difficult for him to understand what he’s hearing. Closed captioning technology, he explained, helps him be precise in his answers.
The moderators’ first questions to each candidate were softballs about what qualified them to be a senator. But Fetterman did not directly answer the question, as would be the case repeatedly throughout the night. Starting by telling the audience “good night,” he quickly pivoted to attacks against Oz. He also established a refrain that he returned to throughout the debate: “It’s the Oz rule: If he’s on TV, he’s lying.”
With less than a minute to answer each question, Fetterman’s responses at times did not make sense or he fumbled for words, and he often seemed more comfortable returning to familiar attack lines than addressing the moderators’ queries.
But even with his auditory processing issues on full display for the audience, Fetterman doubled down on his previous refusal to release his complete medical records. “My doctor all believes that I am fit to be serving and that’s what I believe—is where I’m standing,” he said.
Fetterman’s team had already tempered expectations ahead of Tuesday night by releasing a campaign memo stating that Oz had a “huge built-in advantage,” that “John did not get where he is by winning debates or being a polished speaker,” and “John is going to win this race—even if he doesn’t win the debate.”
Different views on minimum wage
When moderators asked both candidates if they support raising the minimum wage to $15 per hour, Fetterman immediately said that he did, before suggesting that his multi-millionaire opponent could never understand the experiences of working people.
“He has never met an oil company that he doesn’t swipe right about,” Fetterman said.
Oz did not directly address whether the federal government should raise the minimum wage and instead said that Pennsylvanians should be making far more than $15 per hour and that “market forces” were already making that happen.
Oz accused Fetterman of failing to pay his taxes while seeking to raise taxes on other Pennsylvanians, seemingly referencing a budget proposal by Pennsylvania’s governor. “John Fetterman thinks the minimum wage is his weekly allowance from his parents,” Oz said.
Oz says the federal government should not regulate abortion
“I don’t want the federal government involved with that at all,” Oz said when asked about his stance on whether he would support a federal abortion ban for cases not involving rape, incest, or life of the mother, after the Supreme Court overturned the constitutional right to abortion in a decision last term.
Abortion decisions should be between “women, doctors, local political leaders,” Oz said.
Oz accused Fetterman of fear-mongering by painting him as more extreme than he is on the issue. “He’s purposefully trying to alarm them,” Oz said.
“You roll with Doug Mastriano,” Fetterman interrupted, referencing the GOP’s gubernatorial candidate in the state, who has stated his support for a total abortion ban. Fetterman said he supports Roe v. Wade.
Asked repeatedly if he would support South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham’s bill banning abortion after 15 weeks, Oz did not say yes or no, instead claiming that he had been clear in his response.
Fetterman’s fracking flip-flop
Near the end of the debate, the moderators questioned both candidates on their shifting positions on fracking, an issue of critical importance for Pennsylvania.
Oz, who once wrote that there needed to be more health studies on fracking, stated that he’s in full support of the practice. “It’s the jobs I want,” he said.
“I’ve always supported fracking,” Fetterman said. “We can’t be held ransom to somebody like Russia.”
A moderator asked Fetterman to explain his change in position on fracking, which he previously opposed. “I do support fracking,” Fetterman replied, searching for another phrase and stumbling.
“And I don’t, I don’t—I support fracking, and I stand—and I do support fracking.”
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