Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Mehmet Oz vs. John Fetterman is a clash of two personalities running as outsiders

Pennsylvania's U.S. Senate candidates Mehmet Oz and John Fetterman promote themselves as outsiders who defy traditional politics — while both carrying elite credentials.

Mehmet Oz will face off against Lt. Gov. John Fetterman in the race for Pennsylvania's open U.S. Senate seat.
Mehmet Oz will face off against Lt. Gov. John Fetterman in the race for Pennsylvania's open U.S. Senate seat.Read moreStaff/Riccardo Savi, MCT

One is a telegenic TV celebrity who campaigned in fine-cut suits while delivering punchy sound bites in his first run for public office. The other is Pennsylvania’s hulking — often scowling — lieutenant governor, who stumped in hoodies and shorts and on a political career that started in a small, struggling former steel town.

Yet Pennsylvania’s U.S. Senate candidates, Republican Mehmet Oz and Democrat John Fetterman, are in many ways offering voters similar stories: They each promote themselves as outsiders who defy traditional, hidebound politics — while carrying elite credentials.

The early hours of their matchup, after Republican David McCormick conceded the GOP primary to Oz on Friday night, showed how each nominee hopes to puncture the other’s public image.

Democrats attacked Oz as a multimillionaire New Jerseyan running for Senate in another act of self-promotion, while aligning with former President Donald Trump. Republicans slammed Fetterman as just another vote for President Joe Biden, and signaled they intend to try to undermine his populist image by pointing to his comfortable upbringing and the financial support his family gave him long into adulthood.

“We will make sure that this U.S. Senate seat does not fall into the hands of the radical left, led by John Fetterman,” Oz said in a statement Friday night.

A Fetterman fund-raising blast asked: “Did anyone predict that a quack celebrity TV doctor was going to run for U.S. Senate in 2022? You know, I wouldn’t believe you if you said you did. But here we are.”

The winner of their race will have a national impact. It’s one of a handful that will decide which party controls the chamber — and the potential future of health care, abortion and gun laws, taxes and spending, and the Supreme Court, among many other issues. It’s certain to be one of the most nationally watched and expensive Senate races in the country.

Oz, an accomplished cardiothoracic surgeon widely known as “Dr. Oz,” campaigned for the Republican nomination in Trump’s mold, calling himself a “conservative outsider” who would shake up the status quo (and won the former president’s endorsement).

The tattooed and goateed Fetterman took pride in the fact that even many fellow Democrats were chilly toward him, riding an everyman persona that he says aligns with regular people more than party insiders. His political base is in hardscrabble Braddock, a city of fewer than 2,000 outside Pittsburgh.

The success of two candidates with unconventional political personas reflects a moment of deep disdain for establishment institutions.

Yet both have power and prominence. Oz taught and practiced at some of the country’s most elite institutions, Columbia University and New York-Presbyterian Hospital, before achieving fame on daytime television with help from Oprah Winfrey. He has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Meanwhile, Fetterman is a Harvard graduate and has held elected office for 16 years.

Well-known figures whose images will be tested

One of Oz’s biggest strengths in the primary remains in the general — he’s a known name from 13 years on television. Allies predict he’ll appeal to moderate, suburban voters, particularly women and those who have drifted from the GOP, but see in Oz a familiar face from TV. And Trump’s endorsement could hold weight with the GOP faithful.

The counter to that? Oz was attacked from all sides during a brutal primary, and voters have seen and heard those ads for months. While his name ID was near universal, polls suggested many voters who knew him didn’t like him. Oz won the primary by a razor’s edge, so he’ll need to win over the majority of Republicans who picked someone else — some of whom even booed Oz during a rally with Trump last month. And an endorsement from the polarizing former president could cut against him with the wider electorate.

» READ MORE: Who is Mehmet Oz, the celebrity surgeon running for Senate?

Fetterman has already been tweeting out a photo utilized repeatedly by Oz’s GOP opponents showing the doctor bent down to kiss his own Walk of Fame star.

And less than 24 hours after Oz became the nominee, Fetterman’s campaign started selling bumper stickers reading “Dr. Oz for NJ.”

Oz grew up in Delaware and lived for more than 30 years in northern New Jersey while working in Manhattan. While campaigning, he has said he grew up “near Kennett Square,” and pointed out he went to medical and business school at the University of Pennsylvania. His wife’s family has deep roots in the Philadelphia suburbs, and Oz says they moved to his in-laws’ home in Montgomery County in late 2020. He purchased a house there early this year, public records show.

“Shout out to my North Jersey constituent Dr. Oz whose overwhelming 31% gives him a chance to become Cliffside Park, New Jersey’s first US Senator since Frank Lautenberg,” tweeted U.S. Rep. Bill Pascrell (D., N.J.).

Fetterman ran a dominant primary campaign, winning all 67 counties and 59% of the vote, despite robust opposition. And over his years as mayor and lieutenant governor, he’s built a fervent following from supporters, including from many who rave about him as a rare “authentic” figure in politics. His tweets about Wawa, legalizing marijuana, and his dog have endeared him to some fans, and some Democrats argue that his unusual public image is what they need to defy stiff political headwinds this year.

» READ MORE: Does Mehmet Oz live in Pennsylvania?

Fetterman has vowed to win back the kind of white, working-class voters who have fled their party.

But Republicans say his image has never faced the kind of scrutiny and testing it’s about to undergo. And the headwinds appear strong, as Biden’s polling remains poor and Democrats face a midterm backlash that often confronts the party in power.

Republicans are branding Fetterman as “a leftist radical” and also tying him to Sen. Bernie Sanders (I., Vt.), whom Fetterman endorsed in the 2016 presidential race. They plan to attack his stands on fracking, crime, and spending.

A 2013 incident in which Fetterman, armed with a shotgun, chased down a Black jogger could also get more attention.

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

Fetterman is also likely to face questions about his health — he had a stroke four days before the primary and was outfitted with a pacemaker and defibrillator to treat myocardiopathy, a weakened heart condition. Now he’s running for a six-year term against a cardiothoracic surgeon.

His recovery will also delay how soon he can start campaigning. On Friday, Fetterman said doctors had recommended more rest and did not provide an update on when he’d be back on the trail.

Oz, meanwhile, can begin ramping up his activity immediately, now that his drawn-out primary has ended.

Contrasts on abortion, guns, spending

The policy contrasts, and stakes for the public on issues, are dramatic.

Fetterman has said he would not support any limits on abortions. “That is between a woman and her physician,” Fetterman said at a Carlisle debate, when asked if he believed in any exceptions. “It’s certainly not between me or any politician.”

Oz in an April debate said he’d support a ban on all abortions, except in the case of the life of the mother. His campaign noted that in other public comments he has also said he’d allow exceptions in cases of rape and incest.

With the Supreme Court expected to overturn Roe v. Wade within the next month, the issue will almost certainly be at the forefront of the general election.

After a series of recent mass shootings, gun control could be another. Fetterman supports an assault-weapon ban, expanded gun background checks, limits on high-capacity magazines, and “red flag” legislation. Oz has said he would oppose red flag laws, universal background checks, “and any gun-control measure that infringes upon the Second Amendment.”

During the GOP primary, Oz disavowed past statements that staked out more moderate positions on guns, abortion, fracking, and other issues.

Fetterman supports eliminating the filibuster — the Senate rule that requires 60 votes to advance most legislation — so Democrats can move ahead on issues such as codifying the right to legal abortions at the federal level and passing voting-rights legislation. Oz has said he would keep the filibuster.

Fetterman “will vote to raise the minimum wage — Dr. New Jersey won’t,” tweeted State Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta, a Philadelphia Democrat who ran against Fetterman for the Senate nomination. “JF will vote to codify the freedom to choose — Dr. New Jersey won’t. JF will vote to ban assault weapons and for background checks — Dr. New Jersey won’t. The choice is crystal clear.”

And then there’s the economy. Polls show Americans have a growing sense of pessimism as inflation rises and gas prices remain high. The rising costs have dragged on Biden and fellow Democrats. Oz has blasted their spending as excessive and a driver of inflation, while Fetterman has vowed to support Biden’s agenda.

“The Radical Left has taken over the Democrat Party, and nowhere is that more clear than the Democrat primary in Pennsylvania,” said Sen. Rick Scott (R., Fla.), chairman of the GOP’s Senate campaign arm. “This will be a campaign of contrasts. Personal freedom vs. big government control. High taxes vs. low taxes. American energy vs. the radical Green New Deal.”

Important and expensive

The race, with national stakes and in a state with a wide range of media markets, including pricey Philadelphia, is already on track to be one of the most costly in the country.

Oz, who has a vast fortune and married into one of Pennsylvania’s wealthiest families, put $12 million of his own money into his primary campaign, funding it almost entirely on his own.

Fetterman, by contrast, was powered by a deep grassroots fund-raising operation, with more than 200,000 donors, many of them chipping in regular increments of $10 or $20. Yet while he dominated the fund-raising in the Democratic primary, he won’t have that advantage against Oz’s deep pockets.

At the same time, with so much at stake, the national parties and other groups are expected to pour money into Pennsylvania. Already, the top Democratic super PAC has purchased nearly $26 million of TV time for the fall, while its Republican counterparts have bought $21 million.

That’s a lot of establishment money to help one of these self-described outsiders reach the Senate.

This story has been updated with additional details on Mehmet Oz’s views on abortion.