Fetterman and Oz’s debate confirms what we already knew. The Democrats are in trouble

Members of the media watch Democratic Senate candidate for Pennsylvania John Fetterman face off against Republican candidate Mehmet Oz on a TV monitor during the candidates' only debate in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, USA, 25 October 2022 (EPA)
Members of the media watch Democratic Senate candidate for Pennsylvania John Fetterman face off against Republican candidate Mehmet Oz on a TV monitor during the candidates' only debate in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, USA, 25 October 2022 (EPA)

Plenty of Republicans and media commentators will comment on Democratic Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman’s performance during Tuesday night’s debate where he needed to use closed captioning and occasionally mushed words together.

Mr Fetterman needs to use closed captioning after he suffered a stroke in May before the primary. That led to a back-and-forth wherein his Republican opponent Mehmet Oz accused him of avoiding debates and using his stroke as an excuse before they finally decided to square off.

That is ultimately up for voters to decide. But what is clear after likely the last major debate during this midterm cycle, is that Democrats’ chances of keeping the Senate are far more precarious.

One debate performance does not a candidate sink, especially since many voters are likely already turning in their mail-in ballots right now before the 1 Novemeber deadline to vote in person by mail ballot in the Keystone State, meaning many likely already made up their mind before this debate.

But even before then, the tide had begun to turn against Fetterman. After a summer where Mr Fetterman launched a blitzkrieg online campaign and airwaves hitting Dr Oz on being an out-of-stater from New Jersey, Republicans have regrouped and attacked Mr Fetterman for being weak on crime, which has become a sore spot for many Democrats.

A CBS/YouGov poll released on Tuesday before the debate showed Dr Oz has consolidated his support among Republican voters. In September, 87 per cent of likely Republican voters supported him.

When I covered Donald Trump’s rally in Wilkes Barre – in the heart of Luzerne County which has voted for Barack Obama and Trump – Dr Oz clearly had tepid support. After he spoke onstage with Mr Trump, someone yelled “He’s a RINO,” the term for “Republican in Name Only”.

That has changed. Now 94 per cent of Republicans support the former television host, which is in line with a Suffolk University/USA TODAY network poll from earlier this month. Meanwhile, the number of likely Fetterman voters who said they were “very enthusiastic” to vote for him dropped 16 points in a month.

But another poll last week from InsiderAdvantage and Fox29 found Mr Fetterman and Dr Oz are now neck-and-neck when the former previously had a decisive lead.

At the same time, other issues have taken precedence, such as crime, inflation and rising gas prices. Two weeks ago, the Bureau of Labor Statistics found inflation jumped 0.4 per cent in September and increased 8.2 per cent in the last 12 months. That doesn’t inspire confidence.

That doesn’t give Republicans a pass. Dr Oz evaded giving a straightforward answer, saying he would only cut four per cent of wasteful spending to curb inflation, a term so amorphous that it allows voters to project what they consider unnecessary spending without making any hard decisions.

He also skirted giving a concrete answer about whether he’d support raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour, simply brushing it off as “market forces” and was too clever by half when he tried to position himself as a reasonable centrist and then proceeded to say he’d support another Trump run for president.

And both Mr Fetterman and Dr Oz lied through their teeth when talking about their previous stance on fracking.

Dr Oz also skipped a beat when he was trying to dance around the issue of abortion when he said he wanted “women, doctors, local political leaders” to decide on abortion, a line that Democrats will play ad nauseam.

But the fact of the matter is, a Democrat is still in the White House and midterms are ultimately a referendum on the president’s performance and in this case, president Joe Biden’s approval numbers are still underwater. That is bad news for Democrats.

That would mean their best hope is to simply hold every seat in their 50-member Congress that they can.

Tim Ryan has put up a valiant fight in Ohio but is still running in a state that voted for Trump by eight points twice. Their lack of investment in North Carolina has meant that Republican Representative Ted Budd has pulled ahead against Cheri Beasley. Meanwhile, Republicans’ ads on crime have significantly weaked Mandela Barnes in Wisconsin as he is challenging Ron Johnson.

But holding the line is still difficult. While Mark Kelly in Arizona is in a relatively good spot to win, as is Maggie Hassan in New Hampshire, Senator Catherine Cortez Masto, the first Latina Senator, is struggling with the demographic in Nevada.

Furthermore, it would require Senator Raphael Warnock winning a clear majority on election night outright, or somehow muscling through a runoff, a task that would be much harder if Democratic activists, small donors and canvassers are demoralised after losing Pennsylvania.

Voters will ultimately determine if they are ok with Mr Fetterman’s performance on Tuesday evening, either with closed captioning or trusting that he will eventually make a full recovery. But there are already tons of warning signals that every Democrat can see.