Lt. Gov. John Fetterman’s stroke is planting seeds of doubt in the minds of voters about him being healthy enough to be their voice in Washington.
But, in a lucky break for the Democratic hopeful, those concerns — which have been fueled by his lack of public appearances — are being placated by the deep-seated skepticism about Mehmet Oz’s long-standing ties to neighboring New Jersey.
It is an underlying challenge facing Mr. Oz, the Republican nominee for Senate.
“To most Pennsylvanians, health issues are a part of our lives, our family’s lives and everybody can relate in some ways to those challenges,” said Christopher P. Borick, professor of political science and Director of the Muhlenberg College Institute of Public Opinion. “Not everyone can relate to a candidate seeking to represent Pennsylvania without lots of ties to the state, and residency in New Jersey and homes in California.”
“As voters think about what matters to them, they might give a pass to someone recovering from a major health threat and not give a pass to someone who is trying to represent them without necessarily being among them,” he said.
That point surfaced in a recent Emerson College poll in which 22% of voters — 10% of Democrats, 29% of Republicans, and 35% of independents — said they were less likely to support Mr. Fetterman because of his stroke.
Voters, though, were more concerned with Mr. Oz’s connection to New Jersey with a majority of the respondents — 75% of Democrats, 23% of Republicans, and 51% of independents — saying they are less likely to support Mr. Oz because of his longtime New Jersey residency.
“Oz’s Jersey residence is a more potent partisan problem than Fetterman‘s stroke,” said Spencer Kimball, director of Emerson College polling.
Mr. Fetterman suffered a stroke in May days before he won the Democratic primary. He returned to the campaign in mid-August and has since made few public appearances.
Mr. Fetterman has acknowledged lingering speech issues and difficulty with auditory processing but insists he is fully capable of being a senator.
And yet, he has mostly controlled the narrative by reminding voters over and over again that Mr. Oz is a transplant from New Jersey. He is also casting his rival as an out-of-touch television celebrity.
Mr. Fetterman holds a 6-point lead over Mr. Oz two months out from Election Day and there has been a sense the race could be slipping away from the Republican.
Mr. Oz has ramped up the pressure, challenging Mr. Fetterman to a series of debates and pushing him to come clean about his lingering health issues.
It is touchy political territory.
Republicans faced a similar situation in the 2008 election after Sen. Tim Johnson of South Dakota suffered a major brain hemorrhage two years earlier that affected his speech and forced him to travel around the Capitol in a motorized scooter.
Heading into the election, Mr. Johnson was well-liked but also considered among the most vulnerable Democrats in the nation. His Republican rival demanded that he prove he was fit for the job. While voters shared those concerns, Mr. Johnson’s perseverance also inspired them.
Mr. Johnson ended up winning in a landslide.
Larry Sabato, of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, said the political world has since changed, recalling how then-President George W. Bush said he was praying for Mr. Johnson’s recovery in his 2007 State of the Union Address.
“That was a different era, a more genteel bipartisan era, at least when public officials had a health challenge,” Mr. Sabato said.
Charlie Gerow, a GOP strategist, said raising questions about a candidate’s health is fair game, especially in 2022.
“The world is a lot more open about everything and increasingly so,” Mr. Gerow said. “Voters want to know more about the candidates, not just their views on issues, but their personal health and finances and all sorts of things, some of which used to be considered off-limits.”
Mr. Gerow said it is a “delicate issue.”
“Every Pennsylvanian wishes John Fetterman every success with his recovery and hopes he is 100%, but if he is not, they have the right to know,” he said. “If you frame it in that way it is serious and dignified and not mean-spirited.”
The Oz campaign has tried to make that point with mixed results. He scored unwanted headlines last month after a campaign spokesperson, in a snarky back-and-forth over the Republican’s gripes about the price of crudité, said: “If John Fetterman had ever eaten a vegetable in his life, then maybe he wouldn’t have had a major stroke and wouldn’t be in the position of having to lie about it constantly.”
Mr. Oz has since honed in his line of questioning, suggesting Mr. Fetterman is either using his stroke as an excuse to avoid voters or he is too sick to debate.
In an email blast Friday, Mr. Oz said Mr. Fetterman is ducking debates “to hide his health status and/or his radical views on releasing one-third of Pennsylvania’s inmate population.”
Mr. Borick said the message is risky.
“They are hunting for that counter to the big outsider punch he has taken, and they are at risk of having a response that does more harm than good,” he said. “That carpetbagger issue is pretty potent and is going to be a hard one to overcome.”