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U.S. Senate candidates Fetterman, Oz trade familiar insults during ugly debate

Democratic candidate Lt. Gov. John Fetterman and Republican Pennsylvania Senate candidate Dr. Mehmet Oz shake hands prior to the Nexstar Pennsylvania Senate at WHTM abc27 in Harrisburg, Pa., on Tuesday, October 25, 2022.
Greg Nash
The Hill/Nextstar
Democratic candidate Lt. Gov. John Fetterman and Republican Pennsylvania Senate candidate Dr. Mehmet Oz shake hands prior to the Nexstar Pennsylvania Senate at WHTM abc27 in Harrisburg, Pa., on Tuesday, October 25, 2022.

The lone debate between U.S. Senate candidates John Fetterman and Dr. Mehmet Oz was much like the campaign itself: nasty, brutish, and — especially for Democrats hoping to put an end to discussions of Fetterman’s health — perhaps not short enough.

The hour-long debate was held at WHTM-TV in Harrisburg and moderated by Pennsylvania journalists Lisa Sylvester of WPXI-TV in Pittsburgh and Dennis Owens of WHTM. It was often dominated by personal insults at the expense of policy discussions.

Oz “has 10 gigantic mansions. … When he had a choice to make his merchandise, the Oz label is on, he made it all in China,” Fetterman said in answering a question that was supposed to elicit his thoughts on government spending.

“John Fetterman thinks the minimum wage is his weekly allowance from his parents,” Oz said in a discussion of raising the minimum to $15 an hour.

He later added that Fetterman — who he repeatedly decried as a radical with socialist leanings — ”shoots too low” by supporting the idea. “You should be able to get paid much more than $15 an hour," he said, adding that market forces were already pushing the wage higher.

A defining feature of the campaign has been the fact that Fetterman suffered a stroke days before winning the Democratic primary in May. The debate Tuesday night included a closed-captioning system available to both candidates to help Fetterman with auditory processing, a complication from some strokes that can make it hard to follow spoken communication.

Fetterman’s campaign had sought to downplay expectations for the debate, noting Oz’s career as a celebrity TV doctor as well as poor reviews of Fetterman’s own performance in debates prior to his stroke.

And there were difficult moments for the Democrat on Tuesday night, including a period in which Fetterman was asked to reconcile recent statements of support for the natural gas industry with his previous statements opposing the practice.

In a response punctuated by conspicuous pauses, Fetterman said, “I do support fracking ... I support fracking, and I stand and I do support fracking.”

Notwithstanding his claim Tuesday evening that “I’ve always supported fracking,” Fetterman has criticized fracking in the past — perhaps most notably when he ran for U.S. Senate in 2016. The state has passed more stringent fracking regulations since that campaign, and Fetterman's shift on the issue is not new. As he later said in the debate, he has supported efforts to drill for natural gas on the site of the U.S. Steel Edgar Thomson Works across the street from his home in Braddock.

Oz himself has shifted ground when it comes to fracking. He previously has expressed misgivings about the practice, largely owing to concerns about health effects from chemicals involved in the process. Republican rivals accused him of flip-flopping on the issue during the primary, but Oz insisted that “I’ve been very consistent” on his support of fracking, which he called “a very old technology.”

The debate also reprised a discussion of abortion, in which Fetterman thundered “Roe v. Wade, for me, should be the law.” He repeated pledges to support legislation that would write the provisions of that decision into federal law.

Oz proved more elusive to pin down on the issue. As he has in the past, he declined repeatedly to say how he would vote on a specific legislative proposal — a bill by U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina that would ban abortions after 15 weeks nationwide. But he offered instead what he called “a bigger answer. I’m not going to support federal rules that block the ability of states to do what they wish to do.”

Oz said he wanted states to decide on abortion restrictions for themselves in a discussion that would involve “women, doctors [and] local political leaders.” Democrats seized on that remark, with a Senate Democratic committee saying it proves that Oz “wants local politicians to make personal health care decisions for women.” Before the evening was out, Fetterman's camp promised to have an ad up spotlighting the quote.

During the debate itself, however, Fetterman sometimes failed to back up his attacks with evidence. He repeatedly accused Oz of seeking to undermine Medicare and Social Security. After Oz said he would try to shore up those programs by trimming out unspecified waste elsewhere in the budget, Fetterman was asked to respond.

“I can’t just say one thing other than that Dr. Oz would not support — and he would support cutting Medicare,” he said after a lengthy pause.

“John, why do you say that?” Oz said. “I’ve never said that.”

“It's absolutely a fact,” said Fetterman, who made a brief reference to Oz’s opposition to the Inflation Reduction Act. That measure includes provisions that enable Medicare to negotiate drug prices but was not intended to resolve long-term funding shortages in the program.

From the outset of the debate, Oz portrayed himself as the more moderate voice.

“Washington keeps getting it wrong with extreme positions,” Oz said early on. “I want to bring civility, balance. … We bring us together in a way that has not been done of late."

But the rancor continued up until the closing remarks, during which Fetterman bellowed, “You want to cut Social Security!” as Oz recounted the struggle of senior citizens on fixed incomes who are worried about the impact of inflation.

Oz took plenty of shots of his own, including one based on a years-old TV news story about delinquent taxes on properties Fetterman had purchased. Fetterman noted that some of the properties were bought by a community development nonprofit organization, and the taxes had been paid well before the story aired.

Not surprisingly, partisans on both sides declared victory.

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After the debate, Fetterman spokesman Joe Calvello told reporters that Fetterman "won exchanges on abortion [and] China." As for Oz, he said, "the only question as answered really clearly tonight is that he even endorsed Trump yet again in 2024" — a reference to an exchange in which both candidates said they would back their parties' current standard-bearers.

Oz campaign spokesperson Barney Keller saw things differently: "We're hopeful that there can be more opportunities for Pennsylvanians to see the differences on the issues," he said, a reference to Oz's long-standing criticism of Fetterman for only participating in one debate. But he declined to address questions about Fetterman's health: "I guess I would just leave that to Pennsylvanians to judge," he said.

The Democratic-aligned Senate Majority PAC maintained that the debate “confirmed what voters already know: Oz is a scam artist who will say or do anything to benefit himself.” The National Republican Senate Committee countered that especially on matters of crime policy, “Fetterman is too dangerous, and Pennsylvanians will reject him at the ballot box in two weeks.”

Crime — and Republican attacks on Fetterman’s support for clemency for prisoners as lieutenant governor — have played a large role in the campaign. But they played a smaller role in the debate, with Fetterman and Oz rehashing by-now familiar accounts of Fetterman’s tenure as mayor of Braddock.

In the end, the candidates offered a choice in which Fetterman said his campaign “is all about fighting for anyone in Pennsylvania that ever got knocked down that had to get back up again” — by health crises of their own or because they had to overcome the challenges of life in a place like Braddock.

Oz, meanwhile, offered himself as a change agent.

“Are you unhappy with where America is headed?” he asked in his concluding remarks. “I am. And if you are as well, then I’m the candidate for change.”

Polls show the race as a toss-up. The election is scheduled for Nov. 8.

Nearly three decades after leaving home for college, Chris Potter now lives four miles from the house he grew up in -- a testament either to the charm of the South Hills or to a simple lack of ambition. In the intervening years, Potter held a variety of jobs, including asbestos abatement engineer and ice-cream truck driver. He has also worked for a number of local media outlets, only some of which then went out of business. After serving as the editor of Pittsburgh City Paper for a decade, he covered politics and government at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He has won some awards during the course of his quarter-century journalistic career, but then even a blind squirrel sometimes digs up an acorn.
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.