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In country's most expensive Senate race, Fetterman buoyed by local, national support

A map of which zip codes Mehmet Oz and John Fetterman outraised each other between the primary and the end of September.
Oliver Morrison
90.5 WESA
A map of which zip codes Mehmet Oz and John Fetterman outraised each other between the primary and the end of September.

The Pennsylvania Senate race may be the most expensive race in the country, costing more than a quarter of a billion dollars in a recent tally, as Democrats invest in hopes John Fetterman can take a seat from Republicans and the GOP rallies behind Mehmet Oz.

Steven Chen, a Republican strategist and founder of The Liddel Group, isn’t surprised by the amount of money being spent. He notes that Pennsylvania’s Senate race in 2016 was the most expensive race ever at the time, even though that race cost less than half of what is being spent this year. Pennsylvania is seen as a bellwether state, he said, and the stakes are even higher when the Senate is evenly divided.

“That's why I think the parties and the outside groups look at this seat and they think, ‘Yeah, it's worth it burning that much cash in Pennsylvania.’”

More than $130 million of the money spent in the race this year as of the end of September has been raised directly by candidates. Fetterman in particular has been a fundraising juggernaut, raising nearly $48 million. Oz has raised only about $12 million, although the celebrity TV doctor had loaned his campaign another $21 million as of the end of last month. (The rest of the money was spent by candidates who lost in the primary.)

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That doesn’t include spending from outside groups, the largest of which in this campaign have been tied to political parties: the Senate Leadership Fund for Oz and the Senate Majority PAC for Fetterman. Collectively about 100 of these outside groups have spent more than $145 million on the race, according to Open Secrets, which tracks political spending. Those expenditures are more evenly split between the candidates: Each has received around $65 million in outside support, with the remainder going to other candidates in the primary election.

Chen said that Oz’s demonstrated ability to bankroll his campaign may have hurt his ability to attract some large dollar donors, who may have thought their money would be better spent on candidates who don’t have such resources.

Among donors who have given $200 or more, Fetterman has received about $2 for every dollar raised by Oz. But Fetterman’s dominance is even stronger among smaller dollar donors, who have contributed $3 for every dollar donated to Oz by Oz since the primary. In all, Fetterman has received support from seven times as many individual donors as Oz has.

Chen said these small-dollar donations may be a better reflection of Fetterman’s broad appeal. “I think it shows that his support cuts across traditional progressive/conservative lines in some ways,” he said.

Campaigns only have to report detailed information about people who give $200 or more, so Fetterman’s advantage is likely even larger than the numbers below may reflect.

Not surprisingly, both candidates have raised more money in Pennsylvania than any other state. Fetterman raised about $2.50 there for every dollar raised by Oz, especially around the urban centers where the Democratic base is typically concentrated. But Fetterman’s support has been broad, not just deep. He received contributions from twice as many zip codes in the state as Oz. … and for every ZIP code that Oz outraised Fetterman, there were 10 ZIP codes where Fetterman outraised Oz.

Chen said Oz’s relative weakness among small-dollar donors could reflect skepticism among grassroots Republicans. Such supporters “tend to be people who are the backbones of the community,” he said. “And they're looking at Oz and saying, 'Hey, are you a part of our community?' They're still trying to figure out if he can represent them.

Fetterman also has received more support across the country, including more than 20 states where he received at least $100,000. Oz, by comparison, reached six-figure totals only in nine states.

Fetterman entered the race sooner, and had built up a fundraising advantage, but once Oz entered the race at the end of 2021 they were raising a similar amount of money in the primary. But after the primary, while Oz was still dealing with a recount, Fetterman built up a fundraising advantage that he hasn’t given up.

Fetterman’s war chest allowed him to outspend Oz over the summer months, a time when he gained a substantial lead in the polls. But Oz’s spending caught up in October, buoyed by $7 million in additional loans he made to his campaign.

Fetterman spent $4.4 million, or seven times as much money as Oz did, on digital advertisements to voters over the summer. But his lead on TV commercials and other broadcast media is not as large: Fetterman has spent about $1.50 for every dollar Oz spent on such advertising.

Chen says this reflects Oz’s strengths: Fetterman had an established social-media presence and Oz struggled to attack him there, he said, but Oz has experience on TV.

Fetterman’s campaign has begun to spend more on TV recently: Before the primary, Fetterman’s campaign was spending about a quarter of its budget on TV ads. Since then it has spent more than half of its budget on TV.

Election Day: Nov. 8, 2022

Lawyers, doctors and professors were the top three occupations donating to Fetterman. Fetterman also received donations from a couple dozen actors, writers and celebrities like Barbra Streisand, Bob Odenkirk, Larry David, Judd Apatow, Joan Jett, Jackson Browne and Mark Ruffalo. Although Oz earned his livelihood in entertainment for years, he received only one donation from an obscure actor and a handful of donations from musicians.

The top three occupations donating to Oz were CEO, executive and business owner. Although Oz has championed his status as a doctor in the campaign, Fetterman’s campaign raised nearly three times as much money from doctors as Oz since the primary election. The Governor of Tennessee, Bill Haslam and his family, collectively gave almost $50,000 to the Oz campaign, more than any other family (with a shared last name) since the primary election.

The top employers of people who donated to Fetterman were the University of Pennsylvania, Google, University of Pittsburgh and UPMC. The top employers for Oz donors were the Cleveland Browns, The Lancaster School of Cosmetology, VIP Wireless and the Wenger Group, which makes animal feed..

Chen said that despite the massive fundraising numbers – and the spending by outside groups – how judiciously candidates spend the money will help shape the race in its final weeks.

“At the end of the day, money is not how we determine elections, it’s by votes,” Chen said. “And so how you use the money is the secret. I think that's going to be the interesting thing down the stretch.”

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.