Tuesday night’s debate for Pennsylvania’s US Senate seat was all about abortion rights. Republican candidate Mehmet Oz, a famous doctor, said that decisions about abortion should be left to “women, doctors, and local political leaders,” while the Democratic candidate, John Fetterman, criticized the GOP’s hardline stance.
Oz, a former surgeon and longtime host of the Dr. Oz show, started the debate in Harrisburg by talking about how he wanted to “make Washington civil again.” The Republican who backed Trump said that he wanted to “unite, not divide.”
But Oz quickly went back to the 2022 Republican playbook, which has been marked by abrasiveness in races all over the US. He called Fetterman, Pennsylvania’s lieutenant governor, a “left-wing extremist” with “radical positions.”
It set the tone for a tense evening as the two debated abortion, Pennsylvania’s minimum wage ($7.25), which is lower than all of its six neighboring states, and the economy. This election has become one of the most closely watched in the US.
Fetterman and Oz are both running to replace retiring Republican Pat Toomey. Since the Senate is evenly split between the two parties, both candidates are desperate to win in Pennsylvania, where Joe Biden won by 80,000 votes in 2020.
This was Fetterman’s most public appearance of the campaign, since he had a stroke in mid-May and now has trouble processing sounds, which makes it hard for his brain to understand what is being said.
Fetterman’s condition, which he said is getting better every day, was taken into account by putting two 70-inch monitors above the moderators’ heads. These monitors showed the text of their questions and Oz’s answers.
Fetterman said in his opening remarks, “Let’s also talk about the elephant in the room. I had a stroke. He [Oz] never let me forget that.” The Democrat was talking about how the Republican campaign has been mean to Fetterman. One of Oz’s staffers, Rachel Tripp, said Fetterman might not have had a stroke if he “had ever eaten a vegetable in his life.”
In August, Oz’s campaign announced what it called “concessions” it was willing to make during a debate with Fetterman. One of these “concessions” was a promise to pay for any extra medical staff Fetterman might need.
Since then, Oz has tried to distance himself from the tone of his campaign, but he recently said on Fox Business, “I don’t think there’s closed captioning on the Senate floor.”
Fetterman, who is 53 years old, released a report from his doctor last week. The report said that Fetterman “has no work restrictions and can work full duty in public office,” but that Fetterman has trouble understanding some words.
In an interview with a TV station in early October, Fetterman said that he sometimes forgets words or “mushes” words together when he talks, and that his speech problems were sometimes evident during the debate.
The Democrat seemed to have trouble finding certain words, and it took him longer to answer questions than Oz did while he read captioning on screen.
Fetterman said of his stroke on Tuesday, “It knocked me down, but I’m going to keep getting back up.” “This campaign is all about fighting for Pennsylvanians who have been knocked down and need to get back up,” I said.
Early on, the question of abortion was brought up. Nationally, Democrats have brought attention to the role. Republicans played in the decision to overturn Roe v. Wade in June of this year.
Republicans have tried to avoid the issue, especially in states like Pennsylvania that aren’t too far to the right or left. Oz was asked, “Should abortion be illegal in the United States?” but didn’t give a direct answer. Instead, he said that “the federal government shouldn’t be involved” and that each state should be able to decide its own abortion law.
Oz said something that was immediately mocked online: “I want women, doctors, and local political leaders to put forward the best ideas so that each state can decide for itself.” Fetterman said he would “fight to bring back” Roe v. Wade because it “should be the law,” he said.
“You have a choice if you think that Dr. Oz should decide how free you are to have children. But if you think that you and your doctor should decide whether or not to have an abortion, that’s what I fight for,” the Democrat said.
Fetterman was mayor of Braddock, a small town near Pittsburgh, for 13 years. He became well-known across the country after the 2020 election, when, as Pennsylvania’s lieutenant governor, he fought hard against Trump’s claims of voter fraud, calling the then-president “no different than any other random internet troll.”
He has also drawn attention because he doesn’t look like a typical politician. Fetterman is 6ft 8in tall and usually wears hoodies to campaign events. He also has tattoos on his forearms, including nine on his right arm, that mark the dates when people were killed “through violence” in Braddock while he was mayor.
Oz is best known for hosting the Dr. Oz Show, a daytime medical TV show that “ruffled a lot of feathers,” he said on Tuesday. Oz has often been called a “snake oil salesman” because his show pushed fad treatments and products that don’t work.
In 2014, he was asked to testify before a Senate committee. There, senators criticized him for promoting “miracle” diet pills that doctors agree don’t work.
The Fetterman campaign tried to lower expectations before the debate. On Monday, they sent out a memo saying that the discussion “isn’t John’s format” and that Fetterman’s performance in debates during the Democratic primary this spring didn’t impress everyone.
“John had a stroke five months ago, and Oz has spent literally the last 20 years in a TV studio. If there’s a home-field advantage, it’s definitely his,” The New York Times quoted Rebecca Katz, Fetterman’s communications adviser.
At times, Fetterman’s speech held him back, but he pushed back against Republican claims, made in a lot of TV ads in the state, that he was “soft on crime.” He did this by showing how he had helped bring down gun crime in Braddock.
Oz, Fetterman said, “Has never tried to do anything about crime in his whole career, other than show up in Philadelphia for photo ops.” Oz said that “market forces” would raise Pennsylvania’s minimum wage by $7.25, which is the lowest amount allowed by federal law and the lowest amount in decades when adjusted for inflation.
Fetterman said he “absolutely” backs the plan to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour. He also said, “I think $7.25 an hour is a disgrace.”
As the debate was coming to an end, both candidates were asked about who their party might run for president in 2024.
Fetterman said that if the president ran for office again, he would vote for Biden.
Oz was less evident at first, saying only that he would “support whoever the Republican party puts up.” This was a hint that he knew Trump was divisive and very unpopular in some parts of the country.
A moderator reminded the audience that Trump had backed Oz, which is something he rarely does for people who are likely to let him down, and asked Oz why he wouldn’t do the same.
That made Oz clarify his position, maybe because he knew his supporter was known for being very emotional and explosive. “Oh, I do,” Oz said. “If Donald Trump ran for president, I would vote for him.”