NEWTOWN, Penn. — John Fetterman, the state lieutenant governor, has won Pennsylvania’s high-voltage race for an open Senate seat, defeating celebrity TV doctor Mehmet Oz, bringing an end to one of the nastiest and most expensive campaigns of the year as both parties treated it as a potential tipping point for control of the chamber.
Fetterman will succeed Sen. Pat Toomey, a Republican who opted against seeking re-election.
The race was shaped largely by two factors: Fetterman’s stroke days before winning the Democratic primary in May, and the unrelenting barrage of outside money, including tens of millions of dollars spent by Oz’s GOP allies, that attempted to brand Fetterman as soft on crime.
The barrage helped Oz climb back into a race that Fetterman had led all summer — by double digits, according to at least two polls. Fetterman, whose speech and auditory processing were affected by his stroke, agreed to only one debate, on Oct. 25. His struggles were apparent, stoking alarm the next day among Democrats who worried the performance would scare away voters.
Fetterman, known for his bald head, tattoos, hulking frame and casual wardrobe (hoodies over suits), had emerged in recent years as a progressive icon — though he and his advisers preferred the word “populist.” As a former mayor of the small Pittsburgh-area borough of Braddock and later as lieutenant governor, he championed marriage equality, legal marijuana and second chances for criminals, including those serving the state’s mandatory sentence for second-degree murder. Part of his campaign platform, which he pressed in the closing days of the race, was to vote to eliminate the Senate filibuster or 60-vote threshold for most legislation.
Oz entered the race with a much higher national profile from his days hosting a syndicated daytime talk show that Oprah Winfrey (who late in the race endorsed Fetterman) helped launch. But the celebrity persona he cultivated, the medical advice he dispensed and the products he featured on the program all would haunt him as a first-time candidate for office. Critics blasted him for promoting dubious therapies. An early column on the dangers of fracking at times tripped him up in a state where drilling for natural gas is seen as an economic lifeline. And Republicans weren’t always sure they could trust the man who danced with then-first lady Michelle Obama on his show.
After tacking hard to the right in a primary he won narrowly — and only after a state-mandated recount — Oz made efforts to pivot back to the center. He said he would not have objected to Pennsylvania’s 2020 election results and danced around attempts to pin him down on abortion. At the debate, Oz refused to offer a “yes” or “no” answer when asked if he supported a federal 15-week ban on abortion, instead talking more broadly about his desire to allow such decisions to be made by the woman, her doctor and “local political leaders.” Democrats seized on the response as a sign that Oz believes that the government should be involved in personal health choices.
Oz was also dogged throughout the campaign by skepticism over his ties to Pennsylvania — after attending the University of Pennsylvania in the 1980s, Oz only moved back to the state in alignment with his Senate bid. No moment best captured his struggles with authenticity then a video from the primary that resurfaced over the summer that featured Oz in a Redner’s Market shopping for food in hopes of demonstrating the impact of rising prices.
“My wife wants some vegetables for crudité,” Oz said, picking out broccoli, asparagus, carrots, guacamole and salsa for the platter of raw vegetables and dips. “Guys, that’s $20 for crudité, and that doesn’t include the tequila. I mean, that’s outrageous. And we’ve got Joe Biden to thank for this.”
Not only did the reference to crudité fall flat with listeners who were unfamiliar with the term, but Oz’s pronunciation of the name of grocery chain as “Wegners” also quickly trended on Twitter.
Oz attributed the flub to exhaustion.
Allan Smith reported from Newtown, Penn. and Henry J. Gomez reported from Columbus, Ohio