Abortion rights took centre stage during the debate for Pennsylvania’s US Senate seat on Tuesday night, as Mehmet Oz, a celebrity doctor and the Republican candidate, said decisions over abortion should be left to “women, doctors, local political leaders”, while John Fetterman, the Democratic candidate, criticised the GOP’s hardline stance.
The debate in Harrisburg started with Oz, a former surgeon and long-time host of the Dr Oz television show, discussing his desire to make “Washington civil again”. The Trump-backed Republican said he wanted to “unify, not divide”.
But Oz was soon reverting to a 2022 Republican playbook that has been characterised by pugnacity in races across the US, as he referred to Fetterman, Pennsylvania’s lieutenant governor, as a “left-wing extremist” who had “radical positions”.
It set the tone for a contentious evening as the pair clashed over abortion, Pennsylvania’s minimum wage – which at $7.25 is lower than each of its six bordering states – and the economy, in what has become one of the closest-watched elections in the US.
Fetterman and Oz are vying to replace Pat Toomey, a retiring Republican, and with the Senate evenly divided between the two parties, both are desperate to win in a state that Joe Biden picked up by 80,000 votes in 2020.
This was Fetterman’s highest-profile appearance of the campaign, since he suffered a stroke in mid-May, which has left him with auditory processing issues, where the brain struggles to understand the spoken word.
To accommodate Fetterman’s condition, which he said is improving daily, two 70-inch monitors were placed above the heads of the moderators, which showed the transcribed text of their questions, and the text of Oz’s responses.
“Let’s also talk about the elephant in the room,” Fetterman said in his opening remarks. “I had a stroke. He [Oz] never let me forget that.”
The Democrat was referring to the Republican’s campaign which has launched unsavory attacks against Fetterman, with one Oz aide, Rachel Tripp, claiming Fetterman might not have had a stroke if he “had ever eaten a vegetable in his life”. In August Oz’s campaign released what it said were “concessions” it was prepared to make during a debate with Fetterman, which included a promise to “pay for any additional medical personnel he might need to have on standby”.
Oz has since tried to distance himself from the tone of his campaign, but said on Fox Business recently: “I don’t think there’s closed captioning on the floor of the Senate.”
Fetterman, 53, released a report from his doctor last week that said he “has no work restrictions and can work full duty in public office”, but the doctor noted that Fetterman has difficulty processing some words.
In a TV interview in early October, Fetterman said he will sometimes miss words, or “mush” words together when speaking, and there were times when his issues with speech were noticeable during the debate. The Democrat appeared to struggle to find certain words and took longer than Oz to reply to questions as he read captioning on screen.
“It knocked me down but I’m going to keep coming back up,” Fetterman said of the stroke on Tuesday. “And this campaign is all about, to me is about fighting for everyone in Pennsylvania that ever got knocked down that needs to get back up.”
The pair were asked about abortion early in the debate. Nationally, Democrats have drawn attention to Republicans’ role in the landmark Roe v Wade decision being overturned in June this year. Republicans, particularly in politically moderate states like Pennsylvania, have sought to avoid the issue.
Oz was asked: “Should abortion be banned in America”, but declined to answer directly, suggesting instead that “there should not be involvement from the federal government”, and that states should be able to decide their own abortion law.
“I want women, doctors, local political leaders, letting the democracy that’s always allowed our nation to thrive, to put the best ideas forward so states can decide for themselves,” Oz said, in remarks that were immediately derided online.
Fetterman said he would “fight to re-establish” Roe v Wade, which he said “should be the law”.
“If you believe that the choice of your reproductive freedom belongs with Dr Oz, then you have a choice. But if you believe that the choice for abortion belongs with you and your doctor, that’s what I fight for,” the Democrat said.
Fetterman, who spent 13 years as mayor of Braddock, a small borough outside Pittsburgh, rose to national fame in the aftermath of the 2020 election, when as Pennsylvania’s lieutenant governor he vigorously rebuffed Trump’s claims of voter fraud, at one point referring to the then president as “no different than any other random internet troll”.
He has also attracted attention for his atypical – for a politician – appearance. At 6ft 8in tall, Fetterman is usually seen wearing hoodies at campaign events, and has tattoos on his forearms, including nine on his right arm which mark the dates that people were killed “through violence” in Braddock while he was mayor.
Oz is best known for hosting the Dr Oz Show, a daytime TV program about medical issues which, he said on Tuesday, “ruffled a lot of feathers”.
The show also promoted fad treatments and ineffective products and Oz has been repeatedly dubbed a “snake oil salesman”. In 2014 he was asked to appear before a Senate committee, where he was berated by senators over his promotion of “miracle” diet pills that the medical community agreed do not work.
The Fetterman campaign had tried to temper expectations ahead of the debate, and released a memo on Monday saying that debate “isn’t John’s format”, pointing out that some had been underwhelmed by Fetterman’s performance in debates during the Democratic primary this spring.
“John is five months post-stroke and Oz has spent the last two decades literally in a TV studio; if there’s a home-field advantage, it’s definitely his,’’ Rebecca Katz, Fetterman’s communications adviser, told the New York Times.
At times Fetterman’s speaking did hold him back, but he rebutted Republicans’ suggestions – repeated through countless TV ads in the state – that he was “soft on crime”, pointing to successes in bringing down gun crime in Braddock.
Oz, Fetterman said, “has never made any attempt to try to address crime during his entire career except showing up for photo ops here in Philadelphia.”
On the minimum wage, Oz said “market forces” would raise Pennsylvania’s minimum wage of $7.25 – the lowest amount allowed under federal law and an amount, when adjusted for inflation, which is the lowest minimum wage in decades.
Fetterman said he “absolutely” supports the proposal to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour, adding: “I think it’s a disgrace at $7.25 an hour.”
As the debate drew to a close, both candidates were asked about their parties’ potential candidates for the 2024 presidential election. Fetterman said he would support Biden if the president ran again.
In a tacit acknowledgement of Trump’s divisiveness and deep unpopularity in parts of the country, Oz was initially less equivocal, saying only that he would “support whoever the Republican party puts up”.
A moderator reminded viewers that Trump had endorsed Oz – an action Trump rarely bestows on those likely to disappoint him – and asked Oz why he wouldn’t return that support.
That prompted Oz, perhaps mindful of the notoriously emotional and combustible nature of his backer, to clarify his position.
“Oh I do,” Oz said. “I would support Donald Trump if he decided to run for president.”