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John Fetterman suffered a stroke just days before Pa. Senate primary but says he’s recovering well

Fetterman said the doctors told him he suffered no cognitive damage and that he could return to the campaign trail after resting and recovering.

John Fetterman, the lieutenant governor who is the front-runner in Pennsylvania’s Democratic primary for U.S. Senate, suffered a stroke, he said Sunday.
John Fetterman, the lieutenant governor who is the front-runner in Pennsylvania’s Democratic primary for U.S. Senate, suffered a stroke, he said Sunday.Read moreTYGER WILLIAMS / Staff Photographer

Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, the leading candidate in Pennsylvania’s Senate Democratic primary race, was hospitalized after suffering a stroke Friday but said he’s “well on his way to a full recovery.”

He vowed to hit the campaign trail again soon, though it was unclear whether that would occur before Tuesday’s election. Political observers said Sunday that news of the stroke was unlikely to affect Fetterman’s chances, and Fetterman said he remained confident of his chances of winning.

“Thanks for all the support, and please get out there and vote,” he said in a statement.

Fetterman, 52, released the statement Sunday afternoon from Penn Medicine Lancaster General Hospital after canceling his campaign trail events over the previous three days. Fetterman was headed to an event at a college in Millersville on Friday morning when he felt ill, a spokesperson said. Fetterman’s wife, Gisele, urged him to go to a hospital.

“I hadn’t been feeling well, but was so focused on the campaign that I ignored the signs and just kept going,” Fetterman said. “On Friday it finally caught up with me. I had a stroke that was caused by a clot from my heart being in an A-fib rhythm for too long.”

Atrial fibrillation is an irregular heartbeat in the top part of the heart, or the atrium. Instead of beating smoothly, “the atrium’s just wiggling … and it’s not really squeezing,” said Mark Victor, a cardiologist with Cardiology Consultants of Philadelphia who was not involved in Fetterman’s care.

» READ MORE: Doctors explain what led to John Fetterman’s stroke

That can allow a clot to form in a little pouch off the side of the atrium because the blood isn’t flowing smoothly. Sometimes, the clot escapes and gets pushed into the body. “And sadly, when it goes to the brain, it causes a stroke,” Victor said.

Fetterman’s wife got him to the hospital within minutes, the statement said, and doctors were able to quickly remove the clot, reversing the stroke and getting his heart under control. Fetterman said the doctors told him he suffered no cognitive damage.

“I’m well on my way to a full recovery,” Fetterman said. “So I have a lot to be thankful for.”

‘A bump in the campaign trail’

Fetterman will stay in the hospital for observation, but doctors have told him he can get back on the trail after recovering, the statement said.

It wasn’t immediately clear how soon that might happen.

» READ MORE: Who is John Fetterman, the Pennsylvania lieutenant governor running for Senate?

The news shook a race that has been largely stagnant, with Fetterman consistently polling well ahead of his opponents, unlike the wildly fluctuating Republican primary. It took the front-runner off the campaign trail just days before the primary in a Senate race that could determine control of the chamber.

“[O]ur campaign isn’t slowing down one bit,” Fetterman said, “and we are still on track to win this primary on Tuesday, and flip this Senate seat in November.” Fetterman is running for the seat being vacated by Pat Toomey.

Fetterman had the stroke amid a particularly busy campaigning stretch, winding around the state in the last week and a half with stops in Lebanon, Luzerne, and Lehigh Counties. He was in York earlier last week.

He had a planned swing through the Philadelphia suburbs but abruptly canceled the stops in Montgomery, Delaware, and Bucks Counties on Friday and Saturday, citing an unspecified illness.

A planned event Sunday in Scranton, with Mayor Paige Cognetti, who recently endorsed him, was also scrapped. An election night rally was planned in Pittsburgh.

In a video released from the hospital, Gisele Fetterman calls the experience “a bump in the campaign trail,” and she teases the lieutenant governor, who is sitting up and wearing his signature hoodie, after he claims it was his idea to go to the hospital instead of hers.

Fetterman, known for his large frame and unconventionally casual political style, is 6-foot-8. He spoke openly about losing 148 pounds when he was campaigning for lieutenant governor in 2018. He said he lost the weight with a combination of more exercise and a healthy diet, downsizing from 6XL T-shirts to XLs.

He and his wife have three children. The family lives in a converted car dealership in Braddock, Allegheny County, where Fetterman used to be mayor.

What Fetterman’s stroke means for the election

As news of his stroke broke Sunday, well-wishes poured in, including from opponents U.S. Rep. Conor Lamb and State Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta.

Lamb found out during a live CNN interview and said he and his wife were wishing him a “full and speedy recovery.”

Kenyatta complimented Fetterman as an “incredible family man” and said he “look[ed] forward to seeing him back on the campaign trail soon.”

Kathy Barnette and Mehmet Oz, two of three Republicans in a close GOP Senate primary race, also wished Fetterman well.

How the stroke might affect the race, if at all, was also hard to gauge in the immediate wake of the news. But political experts said Sunday it was unlikely to hurt Fetterman given his large lead in the race and the timing of the stroke, which they said came close enough to the primary not to be a major factor, and far enough away from the general election that Fetterman will have time to recover.

“Unless it was some incredibly major stroke, which it doesn’t sound like it is … then he’ll be available,” said Democratic political consultant Neil Oxman, who isn’t working for a candidate in the primary.

Hundreds of thousands of Democratic voters have already cast ballots by mail, noted Pennsylvania Democratic strategist Mike Mikus.

“Compared to the Republicans, there’s a much larger section of the electorate that votes by mail, and those ballots are already cast predominantly,” said Mikus, who is not aligned with a Senate campaign.

The stroke “could create doubt with a small handful of voters,” Mikus said, which would only be important “if this were a very close race.”

Mustafa Rashed, a Philadelphia-based Democratic consultant and lobbyist who is also neutral in the race, agreed that the episode was likely to be a nonfactor in the race because Fetterman said doctors told him they expect him to make a full recovery.

Rashed said another reason Fetterman is unlikely to be slowed down by the news is that voters and the media have been more likely to scrutinize the health and age of women running for office than men.

“Health and age and issues like that matter for women candidates and don’t matter for men,” he said, citing speculation about Hillary Clinton’s health during the 2016 presidential election. “It’s unfortunately been a double standard for a long time.”

Fetterman, who has increasingly seemed to pivot his attention to the general election, said in the statement he was eager to move forward.

“There’s so much at stake in this race,” Fetterman said, “and I’m going to be ready for the hard fight ahead.”

Staff writer Harold Brubaker contributed to this article.