Flanked by pictures of past Pennsylvania Senate debates, Mehmet Oz and Sen. Pat Toomey on Tuesday pressed Democratic nominee John Fetterman to commit to a debate, while questioning Fetterman’s ability to serve as a senator due to his health.
Fetterman has said he has lingering communication issues stemming from a May 13 stroke that he said nearly killed him. He spent most of the summer recovering and returned to the campaign trail four weeks ago.
Toomey, the retiring Republican senator, said that, based on what he’s seen of Fetterman’s recent public appearances, the Democrat’s communication struggles mean he could not be an effective senator.
“As someone who served in the United States Senate for almost 12 years now, I have a really good understanding of how the place works,” Toomey said. “If John Fetterman were elected to the Senate, and he’s not able to communicate, if he’s not able to engage with the press, if he’s not able to engage with his colleagues, he would not be able to do the job. It’s just not possible.”
In his brief appearances in the last month, Fetterman occasionally has missed words or chosen the wrong words. He has said it’s an auditory processing issue, which relates to how the brain processes words, not its cognitive abilities, and noted that he’s in good physical and mental health.
Oz’s news conference, the day after Labor Day and about two months until the critical Senate race, increased the pressure on Fetterman to respond to Oz’s debate challenge and added a sitting U.S. senator to the list of people publicly questioning Fetterman’s health.
Toomey pointed to a recent MSNBC interview in which Fetterman said that he was “feeling fantastic” and that the only lingering effect was missing a word or two or mushing two together.
“If that’s all true, then why won’t you agree to debate Dr. Oz?” Toomey asked. “He’s either not as well as he claims to be, or he’s afraid to be called out for the radical policies he supports.”
Fetterman campaign spokesperson Joe Calvello pointed to Fetterman’s weekend on the campaign trail and said he’s “more capable of fighting for PA than Dr. Oz will ever be.”
“Just yesterday, John marched for over two hours in the rain in Pittsburgh’s Labor Day parade, and spoke at two other events afterwards,” Calvello said. “We have said repeatedly that we are open to debating Oz, and we’re talking with networks, but let’s be clear: This isn’t about debates. This is about mocking John for having a stroke because they’ve got nothing else, and because they don’t want to talk about the fact that Oz wants to ban abortions and believes all abortion is ‘murder.’”
Oz demands Fetterman commit to debates
Fetterman, who is leading by about five to eight points in most recent polls, also faced pressure to debate in the primary, skipping a first debate and then eventually participating in three. He’s not a particularly good debater, and his campaign has acknowledged that his speech difficulties have affected how it is approaching debates. Oz has said he’d agree to concessions, though some have been sarcastic and snarky, such as allowing Fetterman “an earpiece so he can have the answers given to him by his staff.”
Oz opened the news conference with what would have been his opening statement had the two debated Tuesday night at KDKA-TV in Pittsburgh. He accused Fetterman of avoiding a debate stage where he’d have to answer for liberal policy positions, particularly on crime.
Oz has said he’s committed to five major media debate invitations sent to both campaigns, including a request from Spotlight PA that The Inquirer will participate in. Fetterman’s campaign has said that he is up to debate, but he has not confirmed any specific dates or debates.
Fetterman continues to undergo speech therapy for his lingering language problems, and his campaign says he continues to improve. That, and his lead over Oz, could factor into how his campaign weighs the risk and reward of a debate.
Oz said he thinks voters deserve a debate in the next 10 days, given that counties plan to begin mailing ballots within a few weeks.
Toomey touted the fact that he debated in each of his contested elections, though some debates fell closer to the election.
“It was not my favorite thing to do,” Toomey said. “It’s hard work. It takes a lot of preparation. ... But I did those debates in every single election I was in because it’s an important part of the democratic process. It’s an important way for voters to be able to judge candidates.”
Toomey participated in two debates against Democratic challenger Katie McGinty in 2016. The first was Oct. 17 and second Oct. 24, though Republicans argue that early voting was less of a factor that year than it is now.
Toomey said Oz and Fetterman have “huge substantive policy differences” and said voters deserve to hear them play out on a debate stage. He called Fetterman “further left than any person Pennsylvanians have ever sent to the United States Senate.”
Oz embraces both Trump and Toomey
Oz’s event with Toomey in Philadelphia came just three days after Oz appeared with former President Donald Trump in northeastern Pennsylvania. After trying to appeal to the Trump base on Saturday, he stood with a Republican who had voted to convict Trump in his second impeachment trial and who has become hated by many GOP voters because of that.
Yet Toomey, a more traditional Republican who has focused largely on fiscal issues, could help reach a different segment of the electorate. He ran well ahead of Trump in the Philadelphia suburbs when they were both on the ballot in 2016, in part by talking up his support for expanded background checks for gun purchases and by taking a tough stand on Philadelphia’s “sanctuary city” policies.
Asked at the news conference about Oz’s appearance with Trump, Toomey said he doesn’t expect the candidates he endorses to necessarily agree with him on everything.
Oz and Toomey took about 15 minutes of questions after their remarks. At one point, Toomey paused to draw a contrast with Fetterman, who has held no news conferences and taken no media questions at events. Fetterman has done a few one-on-one interviews with reporters.
Rebecca Katz, a Fetterman senior adviser, said that’s also related to Fetterman’s auditory processing difficulties in loud or more chaotic environments.
Toomey on Tuesday said that while senators have served in wheelchairs or while undergoing chemotherapy, he thought communication issues would be problematic. Asked by a reporter about at least two Senate colleagues who recently had strokes, Toomey said that every situation is different and that he’d happily take back his comments if Fetterman were to prove on a debate stage that he’s up to the job.
“If I’m wrong about all this, then John Fetterman has every opportunity to demonstrate that,” he said. “He can just agree to the debates.”
Meanwhile, Pennsylvania’s other senator, Bob Casey, who has backed Fetterman, described the chamber much differently, noting floor debate is increasingly rare in recent decades.
“You’re asking a question, you’re getting an answer,” Casey said of Senate work. “You cast votes ... and then you have a lot of meetings. People come to see you to sit down and talk. John will be more than prepared to do that.”
Staff writer Jonathan Tamari contributed to this article.