State Watch

Democrats brace for brutal election fight in Pennsylvania

Pennsylvania Democrats are looking ahead to what is anticipated to be a brutal slog toward the state’s November Senate race while Republicans are still waiting to see who will clinch the GOP nomination. 

Lt. Gov. John Fetterman coasted in the Democratic primary Tuesday night, while celebrity surgeon Mehmet Oz and former hedge fund manager David McCormick are separated by just a few thousand votes in a GOP primary that appears destined for a recount. 

As vote counting continues, Democrats are trying to game out what a general election could look like while waiting to see who their ultimate opponent will be. But regardless of the outcome, Democrats anticipate the general election to swiftly morph into a bare-knuckle brawl. 

“This is going to be an unbelievably tough, heavyweight championship bout with two people beating each other to death, and it’ll go 15 rounds,” said Pennsylvania Democratic strategist Neil Oxman. “When these guys finish, they’re both going to have the heck kicked out of them.” 

Fetterman bested Rep. Conor Lamb, state Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta and activist Alex Khalil for the chance to run for retiring Sen. Pat Toomey’s (R) seat. Questions circulated among Democrats over who would be the best candidate, but the primary did not turn negative for a prolonged period. 

Meanwhile, Oz, McCormick and conservative commentator Kathy Barnette waged divisive and personal campaigns in the final stretch to Election Day. With over 95 percent of votes counted, Oz has a narrow 31.3-31.1 edge over McCormick – well within the margin of 0.5 points that would trigger a recount under state law. 

With the primaries over, Democrats are coalescing around Fetterman, with President Biden releasing a statement Tuesday night saying the party is unified around the lieutenant governor. 

“As Pennsylvania’s Lieutenant Governor, John Fetterman understands that working class families in Pennsylvania and across the country have been dealt out for far too long. It’s time to deal them back in, and electing John to the United States Senate would be a big step forward for Pennsylvania’s working people. Democrats are united around John, who is a strong nominee, will run a tough race, and can win in November,” Biden said. 

Democrats boast that they have a strong candidate heading into November, suggesting that Fetterman could serve as an enthusiasm booster in a cycle when Democratic motivation to vote may be low during Biden’s rocky tenure. 

“His numbers are terrific among Democrats. He got 60 percent in a four-way” primary, Oxman said. 

On top of that, Democrats are already mulling attack lines heading into November for both Oz and McCormick.  

Oz, the former host of the famed “Dr. Oz” talk show, has particularly thin ties to the state and has closely linked himself to former President Trump — a boon in a primary but a possible hindrance in a swing state the former president narrowly lost in 2020. On top of that, Fetterman could also highlight past liberal stances Oz took on issues like abortion and guns to try to depress GOP enthusiasm. 

McCormick, meanwhile, will likely be pegged as a billionaire close with Wall Street, a label that could rub some blue-collar voters the wrong way. 

“If you ran against McCormick, there’s things that you could say about him that I think are very different. You look at his background and what he’s done. And Oz, his public positions have shifted so much. The changing nature of them may be problematic as a candidate,” said Pennsylvania Democratic strategist Mustafa Rashed. “This is a great opportunity to frame him as someone who’s insufficiently conservative, and that may depress turnout enough for you to win.” 

Beyond that, Fetterman has a personal brand that Democrats say could pose a strong contrast to either Oz or McCormick, who each are exorbitantly wealthy. 

The former mayor of the small city of Braddock, Fetterman stands at well over 6 feet tall and sports a goatee and forearm tattoos. He’s also cast himself as a strong union supporter, a boon in a state like Pennsylvania. 

Fetterman has also traveled extensively across the state, including in GOP redoubts that he’s almost guaranteed to lose in November. However, operatives say that travel could pay dividends by meshing well with his image and possibly narrowing what have grown to be insurmountable margins for Republicans in smaller but more numerous counties. 

“He has been talking about reaching out to every county, and he’s been traveling around. And during the Democratic primary, it’s a questionable tactic because there simply aren’t that many votes in a Democratic primary. But there are more votes in the smaller counties in a general election. And so, he’s given himself a good head start with his focus on campaigning in every county in Pennsylvania,” said Democratic ad maker J.J. Balaban.  

“He’s now been to these counties, he’s built a base of support that he can build off of. To be sure, he will lose the vast majority of Pennsylvania counties no matter what. But he’s laid the groundwork to potentially lose them by a smaller margin, and that can be the difference between winning and losing statewide.” 

Republicans brushed off Fetterman’s possible playbooks, casting any potential attacks as futile. 

“The Left has been attacking Dave since the first day he jumped in the race because they know he is the only conservative candidate who can win the general and go to Washington on day one and make an impact,” McCormick campaign spokesperson Jess Szymanski said in a statement. 

Fetterman is also anticipated to face a gauntlet of GOP attacks, and his support for Sen. Bernie Sanders’s (I-Vt.) presidential bids and policies like a $15 minimum wage and marijuana legalization could hand Republicans an effective message casting him as an out-of-touch liberal. 

“Fetterman is a risky candidate for the Democrats, you never know what he’s going to say next. He is a volatile guy who could blow up his candidacy at any minute,” said one GOP strategist with extensive experience in Pennsylvania. 

On top of that, this year’s political environment is anticipated to heavily favor Republicans given Biden’s stubbornly low approval ratings fueled by record high inflation — and any association with the president Republicans can tag Fetterman with could prove damaging. 

“I would say that he would have a tough time. The party that’s in the White House always has a tough time in that first off-year election,” Rashed conceded, who still maintained that Fetterman could still “authentically” speak to issues plaguing Americans. 

Even Fetterman’s campaign recognizes that this year could be tough on Democrats. The campaign is forecasting a campaign that will test the theory that a candidate’s physical image and personal brand could outweigh the national political environment, tacitly recognizing that Fetterman’s chances are tied to not being pegged as simply a member of his own party. 

“In a tough midterm election in which traditional Democrats are going to struggle, John doesn’t have to convince people he’s not like other Democrats or other politicians – they can see it for themselves,” said campaign spokesperson Joe Calvello. “John is a rare phenomenon: a loyal Democrat who has a following that crosses partisan lines — and whose popularity isn’t necessarily tied to the popularity of the Democratic Party.” 

Tags Dave McCormick dave mccormick David Fetterman David McCormick John Fetterman Mehmet Oz Pennsylvania Senate race Pennsylvania senate race Dave McCormick Jeff Bartos Mehmet Oz Conor Lamb John Fetterman republican democratic gop primary election

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