The long-awaited debate between Lt. Gov. John Fetterman and Dr. Mehmet Oz for Pennsylvania’s U.S. Senate seat showed the candidates attempting to show their fitness for office amid health scares and personal attacks.
The Tuesday night debate was the most significant platform that Democrat Fetterman has appeared in and fielded public questions since suffering a stroke in May. During the debate, he used closed captioning technology to understand what was being said due to auditory processing issues. He didn’t have trouble processing the questions and Oz’s statements, but did stumble through most of his responses.
Nevertheless, he positioned himself as a strong supporter of President Joe Biden who stands up for forgotten Pennsylvanians. Republican Oz portrayed himself as the embodiment of the American Dream and opportunity who wants to unite Americans and push for change.
The candidates are vying for the seat held by Republican Pat Toomey, who decided not to seek reelection. The Senate is a 50-50 split tipped in favor of Democrats by the West Wing, and national attention has riveted on this dead-heat race in the battle for control of Congress. Just prior to the primary, as Oz seemed to gain the upper hand for winning the GOP nomination, former President Donald Trump – a lightning rod within the party – gave an endorsement.
“I’m running to serve Pennsylvania, he's running to use Pennsylvania,” Fetterman said in his opening statement, and accused Oz of lying about his past political views. “This campaign to me is about fighting for everyone in Pennsylvania that ever got knocked down and needs to get back up, and fighting for all forgotten communities all across Pennsylvania.”
Oz responded by calling for more bipartisan efforts.
“Washington keeps getting it wrong with extreme positions. I want to bring civility, balance, all the things that you want to see because you’ve been telling it to me on the campaign trail,” Oz said. “By doing that, we can bring us together in a way that has not been done of late – Democrats, Republicans talking to each other. John Fetterman takes everything to an extreme, and those extreme positions hurt us all.”
Much of the debate focused on the economy, and the first question was about how the candidates planned to improve it. Oz talked of cutting 4% of the federal budget he said went toward waste and fraud, and warned of Fetterman raising taxes.
“I can make the difficult decisions, as you do in the operating room as a surgeon, I’ll make them cutting our budget as well to make sure we don’t have to raise taxes on a population already desperately in pain from the high inflation rate,” Oz said.
Fetterman, when asked about cutting spending, focused on inflation.
“We need to fight about inflation right now because it’s a tax on working families,” Fetterman said. “We must push back against corporate greed, we must make sure we’re also pushing back against price gouging as well, too. We also need to be able to make more in Pennsylvania and make more in America.”
On whether to suspend the federal gas tax, Oz was more hesitant.
“I’m supportive of reducing taxes, but we want to be thoughtful about the long-term game plan to get gas taxes down and, frankly, all energy prices down,” he said. “What we have to do is ensure that we don’t have increased inflation, and the best way to do that is reduce gas prices.”
“He would never make that choice to fight for families here in Pennsylvania,” Fetterman said. “He has never been able to stand up for working families.”
He then argued inflation boosted corporate profits.
“Inflation has hurt Americans and Pennsylvania's families, and it has given the oil companies record profits,” Fetterman said.
Moderators asked questions on a variety of topics: abortion, the minimum wage, immigration, crime, and gun control. But the economy was a recurring theme.
Oz positioned himself as having a plan to “unleash energy” in the state.
“We have one of the richest energy states in the country. I believe if we can unleash the energy beneath our feet here in Pennsylvania, there’d be plenty of money to go around,” Oz said. “We’d have increased wages, more reason for students to take vocational classes to be able to learn trades, which I’m strongly supportive of. We’d also be able to pipe that gas, improve our economy, and reduce inflation.”
Closely tied to energy, both candidates were questioned about their past statements on fracking and how they’ve changed. Oz wrote in 2014 about health concerns related to fracking and now supports it, while Fetterman stated in a 2018 interview that he never supported fracking and now supports it.
Oz said he has been “very consistent” in his support for fracking and said using the technology is safe.
“It is a lifeline for this commonwealth to build wealth ... if we unleashed energy in Pennsylvania, it’d benefit everybody,” he said.
Fetterman’s current views were similar to Oz.
“I absolutely support fracking,” he said. “I believe that we need independence with energy and I believe I’ve walked that line my entire career.”
When his past statements opposed to fracking were mentioned, Fetterman reiterated that “I do support fracking.”
Both candidates also voiced their support for vocational education and encouraging more young people to pursue a trade.
In their closing statements, Fetterman and Oz emphasized their values.
“I’ve heard your problems,” Oz said. “None of this has to happen, this is all very addressable.
"Ask yourself this and others in your family: Are you unhappy with where America is headed? I am, and if you are as well, then I’m the candidate for change. I’m a living embodiment of the American Dream, I believe we’re the land of opportunity, the land of plenty.”
Fetterman said, “My campaign is all about fighting for anyone in Pennsylvania that ever got knocked down that had to get back up again. I’m also fighting for any forgotten community all across Pennsylvania that ever got knocked down and had to get back up. I’ve made my entire career (dedicated) to those kinds of pursuits. I believe it’s about serving Pennsylvania, not about using Pennsylvania for their own interests.”