A look back at Pa.’s 2022 U.S. Senate contest and what it says about 2024 | Analysis
Pennsylvania’s high-stakes U.S. Senate race between Democrat John Fetterman and Republican Mehmet Oz was the quintessential contest of the 2022 midterms.
This competition between two unconventional candidates, in a toss-up state, with control of the Senate majority likely on the line, was naturally the most closely covered election of the season. Yet only in hindsight do we have the ability to fully analyze the result and thus properly assess the entire campaign process.
Now we can take a comprehensive, retrospective look back at the race from its very beginnings all the way to the precinct-level final results. Through this journey we’ll get a fuller understanding of how and why this election unfolded the way it did, and thus be better prepared for 2024 and beyond.
Few politicians have done a more effective job building a brand than the Democratic nominee in this race, Fetterman, now Pennsylvania’s junior U.S. senator.
Ever since he won his first election as Mayor of Braddock back in 2005, Fetterman’s been the subject of countless profiles in magazines, newspapers and TV shows. The story of an absurdly tall, distinctive looking, Harvard grad turned working-class hero was irresistible to writers and readers alike.
Even while opponents contended that this image of Fetterman was more myth than truth, it was a character Pennsylvanians clearly wanted to believe in. He was also someone they saw plenty of, as Fetterman embarked on two straight statewide campaigns, for Senate in 2016 and then lieutenant governor in 2018, that brought him plenty of exposure across the commonwealth.
As a result, Fetterman was perfectly positioned to try again for the Senate in 2022.
Pa. Sen. Bob Casey says he will seek a fourth term in 2024
Speaking of brands, consider the case of Republican nominee Mehmet Oz. Typically known and referred to as ‘Dr Oz’, he turned a regular guest role on Oprah Winfrey’s hugely popular show into his own syndicated TV program. For over a decade, Oz was not only a regular presence on TV, but was also presented as an authoritative medical expert.
Over the past few years, however, Oz built a separate reputation as a Trump conservative. It began in September 2016, when Oz brought former President Donald Trump on his show and publicly declared him fit to serve as President. Two years later, Trump returned the favor by appointing Oz to a Presidential fitness council. Then when the COVID-19 pandemic began to spread in early 2020, Fox News began to turn to Oz for some (dubious) medical advice.
Perhaps the way Trump managed to completely capture the attention of the nation inspired Oz to embark on his own political career. Whatever the reason, when a Senate seat suddenly opened up in the state where he’d gone to college, Oz saw an opportunity to make his own pivot to elective office.
Fetterman’s main foe in this primary, former U.S. Rep. Conor Lamb, D-17th District, was arguably the stronger candidate on paper. Lamb was already part of an Allegheny County political dynasty, so there was a real danger that he’d crowd out Fetterman in his home territory of southwest Pennsylvania.
On top of that, Lamb gained national prominence after winning a 2018 special election in a ruby red district – a feat that put him on President Joe Biden’s radar.
As Edward Isaac-Dovere detailed in his book on the 2020 race, Biden saw Lamb as a useful sounding bound, as well as an up and coming political talent in the mold of his beloved son Beau.
So with a well-known moderate like Lamb in the race, alongside progressive Philadelphia State Senator Malcolm Kenyatta, it was conceivable that Fetterman could be squeezed out and left without a constituency. Instead the opposite occurred, with Fetterman starting off the race with a healthy polling advantage.
Even at the time it seemed to be a mistake for Lamb to wait until August 2021 to formally jump into the race. After all, Fetterman made the leap six months beforehand in February. Especially now in retrospect, such a gap seems especially egregious, given how many years Fetterman spent building the groundwork for this candidacy.
To make up the deficit, Lamb (and state Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta, D-Philadelphia, who also sought the Democratic nomination) leaned heavily on an incident where Fetterman chased down a jogger he believed to be fleeing the scene of a shooting. The jogger, a Black man, accused Fetterman of aiming a gun at his chest. Ultimately, police found no evidence that there had been any shooting and filed no charges.
As a result of all this, Fetterman’s opponents hammered him as racially insensitive and unwilling to admit fault. Nor was Fetterman able to come up with a sufficient explanation during his sole debate appearance. Altogether it was a tough debate for Fetterman, as Lamb and Kenyatta teamed up against the front-runner.
Nevertheless, Fetterman’s upward polling trajectory continued unabated.
Then, on the Sunday before the 2022 primary, we got the news that two days previously, Fetterman suffered a stroke. Any doubts party leaders may’ve been feeling had to be publicly silenced after Fetterman subsequently won that primary with a strong 58.65% of the vote, taking at least a plurality in all 67 counties.
The GOP’s problems started early, with all the Republican Congressmen taking a pass and leaving the party with no high-profile replacement for retiring incumbent U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa.
Initially, 2020 PA-17 nominee Sean Parnell was Donald Trump’s favorite, until his wife’s allegation that he abused both her and their children led Parnell to drop out.
Into that vacuum stepped Dr. Oz; although he was far from alone. A half-dozen other contenders also jumped into the race, among them hedge fund CEO Dave McCormick and conservative insurgent Kathy Barnette. Despite his huge name ID advantage, Oz struggled to fully pull away from the rest of the pack.
In fact McCormick, with the support of some powerful national Republicans (like his wife Dina Powell), began to pull ahead in some polling. Yet Trump, supposedly convinced by his wife Melenia, made a game-changing endorsement of Oz. As Trump painted McCormick as a “liberal Wall Street Republican”, Oz regained the lead while Barnette made her own late, rapid rise.
On Election Night the Republican primary was initially too close to call, with the lead going back and forth between Oz and McCormick in the hours after the polls closed. Ultimately, it took over two weeks until McCormick finally conceded, officially finishing just 950 votes behind Oz.
With Fetterman off the campaign trail, and Oz stuck in electoral limbo, the summer phase of the campaign got off to a slow start. While Fetterman was forced to stay on the sidelines, Oz simply seemed unwilling or unable to take advantage.
Time is a finite resource in campaigns, and Oz wasted a ton of it. Not only was he apparently splitting his time between Pennsylvania and Florida, but he even took a vacation to Ireland in late June and early July. Weeks that could’ve been spent improving his favorables, defining Fetterman early or uniting the Republican electorate behind him were instead whittled away.
The ultimate symbol of Oz’s absentee campaign was undoubtedly the house in Montgomery County where he was supposedly living in 2022. The home, which he bought from his in-laws ahead of the race, never seemed to house any regular occupants. This inability of Oz to even pretend he actually lived in the state caused untold damage to his credibility.
Meanwhile, even though he couldn’t yet return to the campaign trail, Fetterman was still doing an incredible job at branding his opponent. With nothing more than his keyboard and a few web videos, the Democratic nominee effectively tortured Oz by making his New Jersey residency a viral joke. The highlight of this period, however, had to be when Fetterman took advantage of an old Oz video to forever etch crudité into political infamy.
As summer turned into fall, the tide slowly began to turn in the race. Republicans finally launched their offensive on Fetterman, painting him as a dangerous extremist who was soft on crime. This was all part of a nationwide GOP messaging effort in September, which reset the narrative of the midterms around crime and spurred a polling rebound for Republicans.
At around this same time, Fetterman was undertaking his gradual return to the campaign trail. Unfortunately for the Democratic nominee, he still suffered from hearing and processing issues that made campaign rallies particularly difficult for him. A bit of a doom loop developed, with Fetterman visibly uncomfortable in these appearances, and his supporters sensing this unease, the atmosphere at these events was noticeably tense.
All the while, Oz continued to gain steam in the run-up to the candidates only debate on October 25th. Of course, that event would prove to be the nadir of Fetterman’s campaign as his hearing and speech difficulties, combined with the pressure, led to a particularly poor performance. The media response was instantaneous, massive and nearly universally negative.
Suddenly, after trailing in every nonpartisan poll since the start of the race, Oz finally surged ahead in the aftermath of the debate. In fact, in their final internal poll of the contest, the Fetterman campaign found for the first time that Oz was now in the lead.
So what changed in those final days?
Well first, the old saying is true, a week really is a lifetime in politics. While Fetterman’s poor debate showing was the top story on Oct. 26th, a far bigger story broke on October 28th when former U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s, D-Calif., husband Paul Pelosi, was attacked in their home. The Fetterman team also scored a win on November 3rd when Oprah Winfrey publicly endorsed him over her old colleague.
Then over the final weekend, the campaign held dueling rallies with Oz, Trump and Mastriano in Latrobe while Fetterman, Biden, former President Barack Obama and and then Democratic gubernatorial candidate Josh Shapriro stumped in Philadelphia. The juxtaposition of the two events worked in Fetterman’s favor, as Oz’s stature as a moderate Republican was undermined by attending a rally with Trump and Mastriano. Conversely, Fetterman needed maximum turnout in Philly and its suburbs, which could only be enhanced by the support of those like Obama and Shapiro.
With everything we know now, when viewing the last two weeks in isolation, there’s a case to be made that Oz let the race slip away in those final days.
(Map by Nick Field/Dave’s Redistricting)
Fetterman was always adamant that his campaign would employ a ‘67 County’ strategy. After all, the idea that the Democratic Party should win back as many rural voters as they can was central to his own brand. Therefore, his planned path to victory would be less dependent on running up the score in Philadelphia and its suburbs.
In fact, Fetterman wouldn’t hold his first public campaign event in Philly until late September. So when Oz’s crime strategy sunk Fetterman’s poll numbers among rural voters, it obviously called such a plan into question.
Meanwhile, Oz made eating into Fetterman’s margins in the Philly suburbs the core of his fall campaign strategy. The hope was to follow the path Toomey took to beat Democratic nominee Katie McGinty back in 2016. That plan, of course, didn’t work out the way the GOP hoped it would.
Take Bucks and Chester counties for example. Whereas Toomey prevailed there by 5.3% and 2.2% respectively, Fetterman would go on to win them by 7.3% and 16.8%.
By tracking these shifts between the 2016 and 2022 results, we get a clear picture of just how Philadelphia and its collar counties are changing. For instance, six years ago McGinty won Philly by 443,707 while Fetterman’s margin there was just 334,433.
On the other hand, in Bucks, Chester, Delaware and Montgomery counties McGinty’s advantage was a subpar 60,557 votes (Hillary’s advantage at the top of the ballot was 188,353 votes). Fetterman, by contrast, compiled a 254,142 vote margin here, meaning that he gained more in the suburbs than he lost in the city.
This was the same path Biden took back in 2020, as his diminishing returns in the heart of Philly were offset with growth in white-collar areas like central Bucks and eastern Chester counties.
(Map by Nick Field/Dave’s Redistrict)
Speaking of Biden, Scranton may be his hometown, but it gave a bigger boost to Fetterman in 2022. He won Lackawanna County by 15.69%, nearly doubling Biden’s 2020 margin of 8.37%. Fetterman pulled this off by flipping places like Carbondale and Moosic, the northern and southern poles of that blue streak that runs through the heart of the county.
At the same time, Monroe and Pike counties were one of the few areas where Fetterman fell short of Biden’s 2020 benchmarks. One possible explanation is that since Pike is in the New York media market, and Monroe is home to the tourist-friendly Poconos, then the New York GOP’s anti-crime message was particularly effective here. I’m skeptical of that explanation, although I’ve yet to find a better one.
(Map by Nick Field/Dave’s Redistricting)
This region’s traditionally been quietly vital to Republican success statewide, given that it contained the largest red counties in the commonwealth. For example, Toomey carried Cumberland, Lancaster and York by a combined 136,650 votes. Oz’s margin in those same three counties? Just 74,253 votes.
Fetterman’s improvement primarily came from the suburbs, so in Lancaster that meant areas like East Hempfield, Manheim and Manor. Whereas in Cumberland County, Fetterman was able to win precincts in places like Hampden and Lower Allen.
Across the Susquehanna River, Fetterman managed to actually flip Dauphin County, home to the state’s capital city of Harrisburg. In 2016 Toomey prevailed there by 1,189 votes, while Fetterman won it by a much more comfortable 11,458 vote margin six years later. Such Democratic growth in this south-central region will prove integral to the party’s potential future success in Pennsylvania.
(Map by Nick Field/Dave’s Redistricting)
Fetterman definitely has an infatuation with Erie, taking family vacations in the bayside county and frequently touting it as the preeminent bellwether of the state. So it wasn’t a surprise when he chose this city to host his comeback rally in August. Turns out that adopting this oft-forgotten corner of the commonwealth was also another example of smart brand building.
The Pennsylvania GOP reached a high point here in 2016, Trump and Toomey each won Erie by 1.58% and 3.34% respectively. By 2020, Joe Biden was able to narrowly flip it back, edging ahead by 1.03%. Two years later, though, Fetterman carried the county by a solid 9.36%.
Fetterman pulled this off by running even better than Biden in the suburbs around the city of Erie, in areas like Harbor Creek and Mill Creek. Altogether, he’s built a sturdy constituency in this crucial toss-up county.
(Map by Nick Field/Dave’s Redistricting)
We now turn to the Lehigh Valley, home to Pennsylvania’s other Trump-Biden county, Northampton. Fetterman prevailed over Oz in this bellwether too, while gaining strength in Lehigh and holding down his losses in Berks.
For comparison’s sake, Toomey carried a 25,443 vote margin out of those three counties in 2016. Just six years later, Fetterman compiled his own 13,912 vote advantage from this trio.
How did the Fetterman campaign pull this off?
Well, the Lehigh Valley is proportionally one of the most Hispanic areas of the commonwealth, with heavily Hispanic precincts in cities like Allentown, Bethlehem, Easton and Reading. Fetterman made a concerted effort to target these areas, and perhaps with the help of his Brazilian-born wife Giesle, he performed especially strongly here.
In fact, these were some of the few precincts where Fetterman managed to equal or even surpass the totals put up by Democratic gubernatorial nominee Shapiro.
(Map by Nick Field/Dave’s Redistricting)
One reason Oz spent his final days with Trump in Appalachia is that he needed Trump-like margins out of that area to counter Fetterman’s strengths elsewhere. Yet this became another region where Fetterman’s years of groundwork paid off. Nowhere is the former Braddock Mayor’s working-class brand stronger than in the ancestral Democratic areas of the Southwest.
Not only did Fetterman dominate here in the primaries, but that success carried over to the general election, as he scored a stellar 63.42% of the vote in Allegheny County. He also held his own in places like Washington and Westmoreland counties, where Democrats have been hemorrhaging support.
Nevertheless, most of Fetterman’s improvement came in the more populous counties bordering Allegheny. There was less of a bounce back in the more rural areas, and in some counties – such as Cambria, Greene and Fayette – Oz actually performed stronger than Toomey.
Cambria is home to Johnstown, another formerly Democratic city that Fetterman attempted to adopt, yet he still finished behind McGinty’s 2016 pace in this county. Such results suggest Oz left some significant votes on the table in this region by not targeting it fiercely enough.
Conclusions and Looking Ahead
In nine out of ten toss-up races, the candidate that outworks the other is going to win that race. You would expect then, the candidate who was forced to spend months on the mend would be disadvantaged. Nevertheless, Mehmet Oz somehow managed to let Fetterman outwork him and win this contest.
Oz entered this race a millionaire TV star with high name recognition, yet the commonwealth didn’t see much of him throughout this long campaign. Although he did occasional press events, Oz typically only appeared on conservative media while making only infrequent stops on the trail. If Oz put the same work ethic needed to film 175 episodes of TV a year into his campaign, perhaps the result would’ve been different.
What efforts Oz did bother to make were almost solely focused on appealing to the Philadelphia suburbs, the most uphill path imaginable. Instead of photo ops in Philly to decry crime, Oz’s time would’ve been better spent on denouncing inflation in Scranton.
All this begs the question, then, would Dave McCormick have won if he was the GOP nominee? As early as Election Night, McCormick’s allies were making this exact point and it seems that it’s a core contention of a probable 2024 Senate effort.
On the one hand, it’s hard to imagine McCormick running as poor a general election campaign as Oz did. On the other hand, of course, McCormick faces many of the same issues Oz did.
After all, McCormick can just as easily be painted as a rich outsider, since his hedge fund background will be a juicy target for Democrats in a Rust Belt state like Pennsylvania.
On top of that, in 2024 McCormick would face a far more formidable opponent in incumbent U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa.. While Fetterman had never won a statewide general race in his own right before November, Casey’s won six such contests in Pennsylvania (not to mention the four that his father won).
As a result, McCormick will face a much steeper climb in 2024 than he would have if he were the nominee last year.
Conversely, Fetterman is well positioned to build on the success he’s accumulated over the years. As a rule, incumbents are generally tough to unseat, so while the GOP will undoubtedly challenge him hard in 2028, it’s hard to discern at this moment how they’ll be able to oust him.
Finally, there’s what (if anything) these results can tell us about the 2024 presidential race.
The Keystone State is bound to be a critical toss-up again next year, and while there wasn’t much of a swing between the 2020 presidential and 2022 Senate results, these contests are always decided by the tiniest differences.
For instance, while Fetterman won the exact same 13 counties Biden did, he also outran the president in 10 of them – Chester, Delaware and Monroe were the exceptions – and performed substantially better in places like Allegheny and Lackawanna.
This would suggest that Biden’s 2020 performance was not his ceiling in Pennsylvania, and that there is still some room for him to grow. His potential second term depends on whether he can do just that.
Originally published at www.penncapital-star.com,by Nick Field
Comments are closed.