HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — Democrat John Fetterman won Pennsylvania’s pivotal race for U.S. Senate, flipping a Republican-held seat as he recovers from a stroke during the bare-knuckled campaign and giving Democrats hope they can retain control of the closely divided chamber.
Fetterman, Pennsylvania’s lieutenant governor, defeated Dr. Mehmet Oz, the smooth-talking and wealthy heart surgeon-turned-TV celebrity in the presidential battleground state.
Fetterman, 53, campaigned while recovering from a stroke, requiring closed captioning during media interviews and the lone debate between the men. In it, he turned in a rocky performance in which he struggled to complete sentences, jumbled words and fueled concern inside his party that it had doomed the race.
To underscore the importance of the race, President Joe Biden campaigned in Pennsylvania for Fetterman three times in the final three weeks, while former President Donald Trump came in, as well, to hold a rally for Oz, his endorsed candidate.
Oz also carried heavy baggage into the election. That included having just moved from his longtime home in neighboring New Jersey — a mansion overlooking the Hudson River just across from Manhattan — and barely winning a bruising primary in which opponents cast him as an out-of-touch Hollywood liberal.
Fetterman won despite national political headwinds for Democrats, such as rising inflation. He will succeed retiring second-term Republican Sen. Pat Toomey.
THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. AP’s earlier story follows below.
HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — Control of the U.S. Senate could depend on whether Pennsylvanians elect Democrat John Fetterman or Republican Dr. Mehmet Oz, capping a bare-knuckled and extraordinary campaign for an open seat.
Fetterman, Pennsylvania’s towering and plainspoken lieutenant governor who became a progressive hero as mayor of a downtrodden steel town, spent much of the campaign recovering from a stroke while fending off attacks by Oz that questioned whether he was honest about its effects and fit to serve.
As of early Wednesday, The Associated Press had not called the race, but both Fetterman and Oz predicted victory.
In brief remarks to his election night party crowd at a fitness center in suburban Philadelphia, Oz thanked supporters and exuded optimism.
“When all the ballots are counted, we believe we will win this race," Oz told the jubilant crowd.
Fetterman was far more confident in victory, crediting his “every county, every vote” campaign strategy in which the tattooed and hoodie-wearing candidate sought to bring the Democratic Party back to predominantly white working-class areas that have increasingly rejected the party.
“And that’s exactly what happened,” Fetterman, 53, told a cheering crowd at a concert venue in Pittsburgh. "We jammed them up. We held the line. I never expected that we would turn these red counties blue, but we did what we needed to do and we had that conversation across every one of those counties.”
Along the way, he had vowed to be the Democrats’ “51st vote” to pass foundational legislation to protect rights to abortion, health care, same-sex marriage, unions and voting, as well as to raise the minimum wage.
He has likened his stroke, which he had in May, to getting knocked down and adopted that as a campaign mission.
He ran for “anyone that ever got knocked down that got back up,” he told the crowd. "This race is for the future of every community across Pennsylvania, for every small town or person that felt left behind, for every job that has been lost, for every factory that was ever closed and for every person that worked hard but never gets ahead.”
Fetterman spoke smoothly early Wednesday, but two weeks ago turned in a rocky debate performance, struggling to complete sentences, jumbling words throughout the hourlong televised event and fueling concern inside his party that it had damaged his chances.
To underscore the importance of the race, President Joe Biden campaigned in Pennsylvania for Fetterman three times in the final three weeks, while former President Donald Trump came in to hold a rally for Oz, his endorsed candidate.
Oz, 62, carried his own baggage into the election in the presidential battleground state. The smooth-talking and wealthy heart surgeon-turned-TV celebrity just moved from his longtime home in neighboring New Jersey — a mansion overlooking the Hudson River, just across from Manhattan — and barely won a bruising primary in which opponents cast him as an out-of-touch Hollywood liberal.
Polls had showed a close race, with the economy weighing heavily on voters.
Roughly 8 in 10 Pennsylvania voters say things in the country are moving in the wrong direction, according to AP VoteCast, an expansive survey of more than 3,100 voters in the state.
About half the state’s voters say the economy and jobs are the most important issue facing the country, according to the survey. And among that group of voters, Oz had a lead over Fetterman.
About 8 in 10 voters rate the nation’s economy as either not so good or poor.
The Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade also played a role in most voters’ decisions, with about 8 in 10 calling it a factor. Only about a quarter called it the single most important factor, with more of those voters casting a ballot for Fetterman.
Roughly half said they were confident Fetterman is healthy enough to serve effectively, and half said they had reservations, according to the survey.
More voters say they are not confident Oz is familiar enough with Pennsylvania to serve effectively as senator than those who expressed confidence, according to the poll.
Fetterman has characterized a vote for Oz as a vote to outlaw abortion — ridiculing Oz’s comment that he wants “women, doctors, local political leaders” to decide the fate of abortion — and painted Oz as a soulless TV salesman who hawked useless health supplements for money and will say or do anything to get elected.
He also wielded a wicked social media campaign that brought in a torrent of small-dollar donations and mercilessly trolled Oz for his carpetbaggery and ultra-wealthy lifestyle, plowing new ground in how campaigns might use the medium.
Pennsylvania’s seat is coming open because second-term Republican Sen. Pat Toomey decided against seeking a third term.
Oz would be the first Muslim to serve in the U.S. Senate.
Oz, a political novice, left his lucrative daytime TV career for politics in a new state and had the help of national political headwinds against Democrats, such as rising inflation. Still, he struggled to persuade conservatives that he is one of them, while campaigning to win suburban swing voters and peel off Black and Latino voters, who lean heavily Democratic.
He relentlessly attacked Fetterman over flip-flopping on natural gas drilling and progressive stances on things like criminal justice reform. Fetterman, as lieutenant governor, had set out to free the over-incarcerated, rehabilitated or innocent. But Oz and Republicans often cast it as freeing dangerous criminals to roam the streets, distorting Fetterman’s positions in the process.
Oz also challenged Fetterman over whether he had been honest about the effects of the stroke and pressed Fetterman to release his medical records. Fetterman refused, and also refused to let his doctors answer questions from reporters, but insisted that his doctors say he will recover fully.
The stroke left Fetterman occasionally stumbling over words and unable to quickly process spoken conversation into meaning, a common effect of a stroke called auditory processing disorder. As a result, he required closed-captioning during media interviews and the lone debate between the men.
He tried to turn his recovery into a strength, accusing Oz of trying to capitalize on his disability and saying it had made him more empathetic toward people with medical problems.
The election was the most expensive for a U.S. Senate seat in this mid-term election cycle, surpassing $300 million. Money from national groups poured in, and Oz spent more than $25 million of his own fortune on the race.
Associated Press reporter Matt Rourke in Newtown, Pennsylvania, contributed to this report. Follow Marc Levy on Twitter: twitter.com/timelywriter.
Learn more about the issues and factors at play in the midterms at https://apnews.com/hub/explaining-the-elections. And follow the AP’s election coverage of the 2022 elections at https://apnews.com/hub/2022-midterm-elections.
Marc Levy, The Associated Press