‘Stomach-Churning’: How Fetterman Survived a Stroke And More To Beat Oz‘
Top campaign advisers for John Fetterman met in a small, sparsely furnished office in downtown Philadelphia, which was decorated with a poster of the city’s shaggy-haired, Cheeto-colored mascot Gritty. They were there to talk about a problem that might endanger the campaign: They were in desperate need of solutions to stop their candidate from being significantly outspent on television.
Late in the summer, Republican super PACs were attacking the Democratic senatorial candidate from Pennsylvania, portraying him as a nutcase who wanted to break down the walls of the prison and free murderers.
There were advertisements everywhere. Polls were becoming more competitive as reporters drilled down on Fetterman’s stroke, the least popular subject of his assistants.
It was a far cry from earlier in the year, when Republican Mehmet Oz was trailing Fetterman in the polls by double digits and every article mentioned crudité, Snooki, or another unfavorable topic for Oz. The Democrats even set up an inside discussion group just for making fun of the famous doctor.
Already, Fetterman and his Democratic supporters were investing $2 million a week in television advertisements. Republicans, though, began to increase that, causing their media blitz to overwhelm them.
The campaign manager for Fetterman Brendan McPhillips discussed the possibilities with his group. They came to the conclusion on a Zoom call with workers and advisors that the campaign needed to drastically increase spending in order to not just survive the upcoming weeks but also to truly compete with the GOP. To do so would require taking money set aside for the closing weeks of the campaign, which would be stealing from Peter to pay Paul, and relying on outside groups to rush in and spend more on advertisements in October when many voters would be making decisions.
They made the choice to move forward. “We made the decision to basically empty our bank account and just compete as best we could,” McPhillips said. The Fetterman campaign doubled the amount it was spending on television each week, from $800,000 to $1.5 million — and increased it even more in the weeks thereafter. “Essentially the strategy became: Stay alive until October.”
“It was stomach-churning,” recalled McPhillips. Deferring consultant payments was necessary. But in order to stop the attacks, Fetterman had to take action. The additional funding was used to pay for more advertisements in which the 6-foot-8, balding, tattooed politician discussed fighting crime as the former mayor of a steel town and attempted to diminish Oz by casting him as an elitist from New Jersey.
“Doc Oz is criticizing me for crime while wearing Gucci loafers. One of the advertisements claimed, “Dr Oz wouldn’t last two hours here in Braddock. The gamble paid off: On election day, Fetterman not only won a Republican-held seat but also complicated the chances of the GOP winning a majority in the Senate by upending their plans of a huge sweep of the Senate map.
And Fetterman accomplished it as Democrats around the nation fought against what seemed like impossible odds. The state’s lieutenant governor eked out an improbable victory in part by mounting an aggressive, early defense against soft-on-crime attacks and cultivating a reputation as an outsider populist in the face of 40-year-high inflation, sky-high murder rates, and President Joe Biden’s deep unpopularity.