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‘Boring white guys’ are out in a Pennsylvania Senate race focused on personality

There are big issues at stake, but Pennsylvania's Senate race between Mehmet Oz and John Fetterman has largely been about personality.

Republican Mehmet Oz (left) and Democratic Lt. Gov. John Fetterman are running for Pennsylvania's open U.S. Senate seat.
Republican Mehmet Oz (left) and Democratic Lt. Gov. John Fetterman are running for Pennsylvania's open U.S. Senate seat.Read moreMCT / STAFF

Pennsylvania, as one operative put it recently, has a long history of electing “boring white guys.”

That’s one trend that’ll change in this year’s Senate race.

Well, at least the “boring” part.

In a contest that features a TV celebrity and a steel country Paul Bunyan, big personalities have largely overshadowed serious policy debate.

That’s in keeping with a widespread celebri-fication of politics. But it’s also a pretty significant shift for Pennsylvania.

The state’s top statewide officials, Gov. Tom Wolf and Sens. Bob Casey and Pat Toomey have the combined excitement of oatmeal (and maybe that’s by design, given the state’s close elections).

Democratic nominee John Fetterman is a radical departure. His tattoos, hoodies and blaring rock music at his rallies back up his central appeal: that he’s different from most politicians. More real, less starched.

Republican Mehmet Oz has built his campaign around the image he cultivated for years as a daytime TV star. He’d be Pennsylvania’s the state’s first senator with several multimillion-dollar mansions, a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and a line to Oprah.

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There are big issues at stake — abortion rights, the economy, crime, immigration, climate change, and energy demands — but so far we’ve heard a lot more about crudite.

When the candidates have talked about issues, it’s mostly to scare the bejesus out of voters.

Fetterman warns that Oz would restrict abortion (Oz has said he opposes abortion except in cases of rape, incest, and to save the mother), and Oz says Fetterman would let criminals and drugs run loose.

Their own policy platforms and goals? Best we can tell about Oz is that his mission is to oppose whatever Joe Biden wants. Fetterman says he’d support a minimum wage increase, abortion rights, labor unions, and legal weed.

But much of his messaging hinges on trolling Oz as a rich fraud from New Jersey. His stump speech is largely a comedy routine so familiar that supporters in Bethlehem Saturday called out some hits before Fetterman even delivered them.

“I had to Google — what is a crudite?” Fetterman said to laughs.

Oz depicts Fetterman as a rich kid dressing up in a blue collar costume to conceal radical beliefs.

“When he dresses like that, it’s not an accident, he’s kicking authority in the balls,” Oz said on the Ruthless podcast last week.

Fetterman tweeted: “DC could use a kick in the balls.”

Stay classy, guys.

The scarce discussion of issues has been exacerbated by the fact that Fetterman wouldn’t agree to a debate until Oct. 25, two weeks before Election Day, despite invitations for earlier dates. He has done few interviews, especially with Pennsylvania outlets. Oz has been available to reporters but repeatedly evades direct answers on policy, including on the minimum wage, a Senate bill that would ban abortion at 15 weeks, and gun laws.

But voters often go with their guts. Who do they trust? Who do they relate to? Who matches their values?

» READ MORE: Pa. Republicans are gaining on Democrats in registered voters. What that really means.

There’s some logic to that approach. Senators in reality are almost always left deciding on muddled, compromised bills full of trade-offs. That’s where character and background come in. Which principles do they prioritize when competing goals clash?

Toomey has broken with the GOP on gun laws, but the former banker won’t budge on fiscal issues. New Jersey’s Cory Booker, the son of civil rights activists, has prioritized criminal justice and policing reform.

Both Pennsylvania candidates seem to have incentive to turn the race into a personality contest. Oz, polling shows, has a deeply negative public image. So if it comes down to who voters like more, that would seem good for Fetterman.

Oz, meanwhile, has had lukewarm GOP support. The best motivation for energizing conservative voters might be the thought of Sen. Fetterman (D., Sheetz) walking the marbled U.S. Capitol in gym shorts.

Maybe he’ll bring a pair for Casey.

A version of this article appeared in our PA 2022 Election Newsletter. Sign up to get the newsletter delivered directly to your inbox.