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An initiative to provide nonpartisan, independent elections journalism for southwestern Pennsylvania.

Fetterman defeats Oz in 'most important Senate race in the country'

Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate from Pennsylvania, right, is joined by his family after addressing supporters at an election night party in Pittsburgh, Wednesday, Nov. 9, 2022.
Gene J. Puskar
Pennsylvania Democrat John Fetterman has defeated Republican Dr. Mehmet Oz to flip a highly competitive Senate seat and sustain Democratic hopes of maintaining control of the chamber.

In a major win for Democrats, John Fetterman defeated Republican Dr. Mehmet Oz in Pennsylvania, flipping a highly competitive Senate seat and sustaining the party’s hopes of maintaining control of the upper chamber.

In a race that was, in many ways, defined by Fetterman's words —  he has struggled with his speaking and hearing after suffering a stroke in May — the Democrat was left speechless as he walked onto the stage and looked at his supporters. But his speech picked up pace, as he laid out exactly how his campaign had won.

In nearly every county, Fetterman won a larger share of the vote than President Joe Biden did in 2020.

"We had our slogan," he said. "Every county, every vote. And that's exactly what happened. We jammed them up."

His improvement on Biden's performance meant that the race was called by The Associated Press on election night, rather than several days later.

Fetterman said his campaign won on the issues that he championed, including abortion access, union jobs, raising the minimum wage and health care.

"Health care is a fundamental human right," he said. "It saved my life, and it should all be there for you when you ever should need it."

But more than any issue, he said, his stroke emphasized further that only he was the candidate who was championing the underdogs.

"This campaign has always been about fighting for everyone who's ever been got knocked down that ever got back up," he said. "For every small-town person that ever felt left behind. For every job that was ever been lost. For every factory that was ever closed. For every person that works hard but never got to ever get ahead."

And it was this original inspiration, which he said has driven him for the past two decades since moving to Braddock. And it inspired his winning election strategy.

"I've spent the last two decades fighting for the forgotten communities because no community deserves to be left behind. No one deserves to be abandoned," he said. "And every place matters."

An Oz campaign statement released Tuesday morning said the candidate had called Fetterman to concede: "This morning I called John Fetterman and congratulated him. I wish him and his family all the best, both personally and as our next United States Senator. Campaigning throughout our great Commonwealth was the honor of a lifetime, and I will cherish the memories and the people I met."

Oz, who was out-fundraised by Fetterman, loaned his campaign more than $27 million.

Oz's defeat was a rebuke of a candidate backed by former President Donald Trump, who also endorsed the Republican candidate for Governor, state Sen. Doug Mastriano. Unlike Mastriano, Oz tried to appeal to moderate voters in the last weeks of his campaign, including a debate in which Fetterman's speech challenges prevented him from fully responding.

Fetterman credited his wife, Gisele, with saving his life when she recognized he was having a stroke while coming out of a Sheetz bathroom. Gisele, who gave the acceptance speech for John in the primary when the candidate was still in the hospital, had only a few words to add Tuesday night before Fetterman's campaign staff poured onto the stage in celebration.

"The mother in me tells everyone," she said, "to go to bed tonight and get some sleep."

Going into the election, the Senate was divided 50–50, with Vice President Kamala Harris breaking the tie. To flip the Senate, Republicans needed to unseat only a single Democratic incumbent.

Fettermaneasily won his primary over the more moderate Conor Lamb, despite the fact that Fetterman suffered the stroke just days before the election. Fetterman’s campaign didn’t immediately make clear how bad the stroke was or reveal all of the underlying health conditions from which Fetterman had been suffering.

Oz had to wait weeks to be declared the winner of the Republican primary after a statewide recount showed he was ahead of his wealthy opponent, Dave McCormick.

As Fetterman recovered from his stroke, he avoided holding public events and instead ran a campaign heavy on social media, attacking Oz for his long history of living in New Jersey. This coincided with the moment when the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v Wade, which galvanized Democratic voters.

Fetterman’s campaign peaked around Aug. 17, just after he held his first campaign event since his stroke, when a video of Oz resurfaced that showed him criticizing the rising cost of “crudite.” Fetterman said Oz was tone-deaf to the working people, and that Pennsylvanians would understand it better as a “veggie tray.”

But Oz’s campaignbegan to fight back, attacking Fetterman’s health, both directly and, in many cases, indirectly, for not holding many public events, talking to reporters or agreeing to any debates. Thesequestions followed Fetterman during a handful of public appearances he began to make. Eventually Fetterman’s campaign agreed to a debate toward the end of October.

Outside spending groups, meanwhile, had begun to hammer Fetterman with tens of millions of dollars in TV ads about his record and views on crime. In particular, Oz attacked Fetterman for advocating for the early release of Pennsylvania prisoners during Fetterman’s time as chair of the Board of Pardons. Although many of these ads were either misleading or simplistic, they also appeared to work: Fetterman’s large polling lead during the summer began to narrow.

The race became dominated by attacks from both candidates. Fetterman’s campaign attacked Oz’s record of endorsing sham products on his TV showand even accused him of experimenting on puppies as a surgeon. Oz’s campaign attacked Fetterman for receiving money from his parents while he did volunteer work into his 40s and for Fetterman’s lackluster attendance record at city council meetings as mayor of Braddock and at state Senate meetings as lieutenant governor.

The focus on the candidates’ lone debate was largely on Fetterman’s health and performance rather than the substance of their disagreements. Fettermanstruggled to articulate his positions, and many Republicans, including Toomey, began to question whether he was fit to serve. Fetterman hadreleased a second letter from his primary care doctor the week before that said he was healthy enough to serve, but he didn’t agree during the debate to release his full medical records. Fetterman argued that voters should be able to decide for themselves whether he was healthy enough to serve.

WHYY’s Cory Sharber contributed to this report.

Oliver Morrison is a general assignment reporter at WESA. He previously covered education, environment and health for PublicSource in Pittsburgh and, before that, breaking news and weekend features for the Wichita Eagle in Kansas.