Mehmet Oz, John Fetterman running neck and neck in race that could decide control of Senate

Oz and Fetterman are even or close in polls in a battle for an open seat in Pennsylvania. The outcome could determine if Democrats or Republicans hold the majority.

The race between Mehmet Oz and John Fetterman could decide which party controls the U.S. Senate, and just days before the election, the contest appears to be deadlocked.

Oz and Fetterman have waged an expensive battle for an open Senate seat in Pennsylvania. Republican U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey isn’t seeking re-election, giving Democrats a chance to pick up a seat in the Senate and potentially expand their majority, or offset the loss of seats elsewhere. The Senate majority remains crucial for President Biden and his agenda, especially with Republicans having a good chance of regaining control of the House of Representatives.

The Pennsylvania race has drawn national attention due to the stakes and the celebrity factor, with one of America's most famous physicians running as the GOP nominee. Republicans are counting on Oz to keep the seat in the party’s hands to take back the Senate.

Fetterman, a Democrat and Pennsylvania’s lieutenant governor, continues to recover from a stroke. Long a popular figure with Pennsylvania Democrats, he has led in polls through much of the campaign, but the contest appears to have narrowed.

A Muhlenberg College poll released Wednesday shows Fetterman and Oz tied, at 47%-47%. The remaining voters are undecided or casting ballots for others. Fetterman has a 2-point lead over Oz, 47%-45%, in the Suffolk University/USA Today Network that was released Wednesday, but that’s within the survey’s margin of error and indicates a tight contest.

“The race by all metrics appears to have become much much tighter,” said Christopher Borick, a political analyst at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pa. “It’s about as even as possible going into the home stretch. It’s certainly living up to its billing as one of the most focused-on races in the country.”

Oz has gained ground, or at the very least coaxed wary Republicans to back him, polls suggest. Both campaigns are getting high-profile help in the final days.

Biden and former President Barack Obama will hold an event with Fetterman and Democratic gubernatorial nominee Josh Shapiro in Philadelphia Saturday. Former President Donald Trump will appear in western Pennsylvania to boost Oz and Doug Mastriano, the GOP hopeful for governor.

Fetterman picked up a noteworthy endorsement Thursday night from Oprah Winfrey, the icon who launched Oz to stardom.

Winfrey regularly featured Oz on her talk show for years and co-produced “The Dr. Oz Show.” In an online event, Winfrey said there are “many reasons” she’d vote for Fetterman if she were a Pennsylvania resident, according to Today.com.

And if there's any doubt about the importance of the race, look at the money that has been pouring into Pennsylvania.

The Pennsylvania Senate race was the first to garner more than $100 million in outside spending in the 2022 election cycle, according to an analysis by Open Secrets, a nonprofit group that tracks spending in politics. Outside groups have spent more than $130 million in the general election alone, and more than $170 million in the primary and general elections combined, shattering the previous high for a Senate race in 2016, also in Pennsylvania.

Fetterman’s health

Fetterman has long portrayed himself as an unconventional politician, even with a master’s degree in public policy from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.

A towering figure at 6-foot-8, he typically wears shorts and work shirts; he dons a suit when he presides over the Pennsylvania Senate. He served as the former mayor of Braddock, a small town in western Pennsylvania, and cites his work in reviving the town and reducing crime. He sports tattoos with Braddock’s zip code and the dates of town residents who died in violent crimes.

While Fetterman has appealed to many voters and won the Democratic primary handily, his health remains an issue in the race.

Fetterman suffered a stroke in May, just days before the Democratic primary. Republicans have assailed Fetterman for a lack of transparency about his health. Three weeks after the stroke, Fetterman said in a statement that he “almost died.”

During the only debate in the race on Oct. 25, Fetterman struggled repeatedly with his wording and phrasing, and he acknowledged at times he misses words or mushes them together. He read questions on closed captioning during the debate. Fetterman has said he’s recovering and up to the task of serving in the Senate. Medical experts point out that struggles with speech and auditory processing after a stroke don’t indicate diminished intellectual capacity.

Most analysts agree the debate did Fetterman few favors, although Fetterman said in a CNN interview that he felt it was important to appear at the debate.

It’s unclear how much the debate affected the race. “Fetterman’s performance may have had an impact on the margins but we don’t see any evidence of a wholesale shift in the race,” Patrick Murray, director of the independent Monmouth University Polling Institute, said in a statement. A Monmouth University poll shows Fetterman with a slight edge, 48%-44%, that is within the margin of error.

By the time the debate took place, some voters had already cast their ballots by mail. By Oct. 25, nearly 640,000 Pennsylvania voters mailed their ballots, CNN reported. More than 1.3 million Pennsylvania voters requested mail ballots, and the majority came from registered Democrats, The Philadelphia Inquirer reported. Still, most voters in Pennsylvania are expected to cast ballots in person.

While there aren’t many undecided voters left and most debate viewers likely had already made their choice, Borick said the debate, and clips played on social media, may have hurt Fetterman to a degree. “I do believe the debate has had an impact on the race and has had a factor in the tightening,” Borick said.

"Because it’s so close, a lot of marginal things could be really, really impactful,” Borick said. “The debate might be one of those. It didn’t help Fetterman."

Berwood Yost, director of Franklin & Marshall College’s Center for Opinion Research in Lancaster, Pa., said he doesn’t see evidence that the debate has radically changed the race, but he didn’t discount the possibility that some voters could have lingering concerns about Fetterman’s health.

However, some voters say they are more troubled by Oz’s views than Fetterman’s health, Borick said, adding, “To some, the alternative is not acceptable.”

Oz: High unfavorables

Oz brings plenty of his own baggage. Critics have derided him as a modern snake oil salesman for pushing what he has touted as miracle cures for weight loss on his long-running television show. In a 2014 study, researchers found “believable evidence” for only a third of the recommendations on “The Dr. Oz Show.”

While Oz’s primary residence has been in New Jersey for years, he established residency in Pennsylvania to run for the Senate. Fetterman’s campaign and supporters have relentlessly characterized Oz as someone who is not a true resident of the Keystone State.

Some voters have been slow to warm up to Oz. Many voters appear to be more concerned about Oz’s understanding of Pennsylvania residents than Fetterman’s health, Yost said.

“Dr. Oz is not particularly well-liked, in terms of his favorability rating,” Yost said.

In the Muhlenberg poll, more than half of the participants (55%) viewed Oz unfavorably, while 46% of voters said they had an unfavorable view of Fetterman.

Oz also received heat for his answer to a question on abortion in the debate. He said he opposed the federal government interfering with state decisions on abortion, but was widely criticized when he said, “I want women, doctors, local political leaders, letting the democracy that’s always allowed our nation to thrive to put the best ideas forward so states can decide for themselves.”

Abortion rights supporters responded that patients should be the only ones to make those decisions. Fetterman has made his support of a woman’s right to choose a central tenet of his campaign.

Even with the endorsement of Trump, Oz barely managed to win the GOP primary in May. Oz edged David McCormick by less than 1,000 votes - less than one-tenth of one percent - to capture the Republican nomination.

Oz has criss-crossed the Keystone State to connect with voters. He’s also tried to cast himself as more moderate in recent ads. He points to his years as a physician and promises to bring healing amid partisan divisions, saying he will fix problems because, “That’s what doctors do.”

Some analysts say Oz’s efforts to appear more moderate could be undercut by appearing with Trump this weekend. Trump is expected to fire up his supporters, but the visit could damage Oz’s ability to sway the undecided voters he is trying to reach.

“If I’m in the Oz camp, trying to make him seem more moderate, and less extreme, appearing with Donald Trump to me is a mistake,” Borick said.

Counting beyond Election Night?

Televised campaign ads for both Oz and Fetterman are running almost constantly. The Fetterman campaign has also run some novel ads, including renting a billboard near the Philadelphia Eagles’ stadium, Lincoln Financial Field, saying that Oz roots for the Dallas Cowboys.

Fetterman has pushed hard for the legalization of recreational marijuana. With the state’s board of pardons, he has helped spur an increase in the commutation of those serving life sentences, and Fetterman has argued that some individuals deserve second chances.

“Fetterman’s brand is appealing to a lot of folks … it’s also open to some level of attack that weakens his support among the electorate,” Borick said.

The Oz campaign and outside groups have attacked Fetterman as being too extreme and soft on crime, and the tightening of the race indicates the strategy has had some success.

Fetterman maintains a strong edge in polls in areas such as understanding the concerns of the state’s voters. He had a 21-point edge on that question in the Franklin & Marshall poll, Yost noted.

Oz is still struggling to overcome the out-of-state label, and voters haven’t really embraced him, analysts say.

“He came out of the primary pretty damaged,” Borick said. “He got hit hard, barely won. Even among Republicans, there were a lot that didn't like him. They’re coming back to him, but there’s not deep, widespread favorability. It certainly gives him a ceiling."

Voters will go to the polls Tuesday, but it remains to be seen if the victor will be apparent Tuesday night.

Pennsylvania’s election law doesn’t allow mail-in ballots to be tabulated until Election Day, and in the past two years, it has taken a few days to count all the votes. In the 2020 presidential election, it took several days before it became apparent Joe Biden won Pennsylvania, and the White House.

If the tight polls are an indication of the race, it may take days before we know if Fetterman or Oz will be Pennsylvania’s next senator, and potentially, which party will take control of the U.S. Senate.

The race could come down to the small number of undecided voters, analysts say.

As Yost asked, “Where are they at?”