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Dr. Oz is closing the gap in the PA Senate race, but can he win?

The Keystone State contest between celebrity surgeon Dr. Oz and Lt. Gov. John Fetterman stands out from the pack, and it just could determine control of the U.S. Senate.

PHILADELPHIA (CN) — When Dr. Mehmet Oz announced his run for an open U.S. Senate seat in Pennsylvania last November, part of his appeal to voters was that he, like former President Donald Trump, came to them straight from their TV screens. 

The celebrity doctor’s name recognition alone proved a promising notion for the Republican ticket alongside some of Oz's other Trumpian similarities. A rich television personality with no political experience. Someone who has vowed to fix the political system as an outsider.

Less than a month out from the Nov. 8 midterm election, however, Oz is trailing 46-40 behind the Democrats' nominee, Pennsylvania’s Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman.

Like Oz, Fetterman has taken on the “outsider” image on the campaign trail. But while Oz barely squeaked through the primaries, Fetterman coasted with an overwhelming majority. At 6-foot-8, Fetterman doesn't strike the typical political image with his tattoos and campaign trail uniform of basketball shorts and hooded sweatshirts.

The former Braddock, Pennsylvania, mayor appeared this week in what was billed as his first on-camera, one-on-one interview since he had a stroke in May. While campaign aides say the stroke did not damage their candidate's cognitive abilities, Fetterman relied on a captioning system in the interview to compensate for changes to his auditory processing and speech patterns — common side effects of a stroke.

Fetterman may have lost the double-digit polling lead that he set in the summer, but his numbers remain stronger than those of his celebrity opponent.

“He really should be running away with this because he has terrific name recognition,” Alison Dagnes, a professor of political science at Shippensburg University, said of Oz. "And Fetterman had a stroke and was off the campaign trail for four months."

Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. John Fetterman takes the stage with his wife, Gisele, during a rally at Riverfront Sports in Scranton, Pa., on Saturday, Sept. 17, 2022. (Christopher Dolan/The Times-Tribune via AP)

In a race where majority control of the Senate is on the table, eyes across the nation are on this open seat race taking place in a state that flipped from Trump in 2016 to Biden in 2020, and will serve as an indicator of the political tides of parties and candidates heading into 2024.

Dagnes points to bad branding, a lack of transparency and authenticity as the reason why Oz must punch up against Fetterman. 

In contrast to Trump, who brashly adapted his “you’re fired” personality from “The Apprentice,” Oz’s TV personality hasn’t translated well to politics. 

“A kindly doctor is not supposed to yell at you and have mean things to say,” Dagnes explained in an interview. “That sort of image doesn't necessarily work.

“If you craft a persona, and then your political persona is exactly opposite of that, and it's really not what the public wants,” Dagnes continued. “He has tried to be the sort of authentic guy, which doesn't work, because he's not a real person.”

Oz instead tried to dodge the elephant in the room: his association with the Democrat-endorsing Oprah Winfrey, who featured the doctor on her show at least 60 times.

“If in the first ad he had run, he’s in a pair of incredibly expensive alligator shoes getting out of a Lamborghini, and he takes his incredibly expensive sunglasses off of his highly sculpted face, looks straight at the camera and says, ‘I'm Mehmet Oz. I'm rich. Oprah loves me. And I want to be your senator.’ I think Pennsylvanians would have fallen over themselves to vote for him,” Dagnes diagnosed. “Because that's all we really knew about Mehmet Oz.” 

What voters don't know, Dagnes continued, is why the doctor-turned-celebrity with no policy experience wants to be Pennsylvania’s senator. On top of that, there is little pushback from Oz to the mud being slung by Fetterman's campaign — many of which centered around Oz’s wealth and his primary residence being in New Jersey until just before he announced his run, when he changed it to his in-laws’ Pennsylvania address.

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“We've never seen a true Hollywood figure like Oz try to win office in Pennsylvania before,” Christopher Borick, a professor of political science at Muhlenberg College, explained of Oz’s appeal. “I don't think voters particularly value a lot of policy experience these days. We do elevate celebrity often over experience.”

Mehmet Oz, a Republican candidate for U.S. Senate in Pennsylvania, speaks at House of Glory Philly CDC in Philadelphia on Sept. 19, 2022. (AP Photo/Ryan Collerd)

Sarah Niebler, an associate professor of political science at Dickinson College, expects turnout to be affected by the pull of Pennsylvania’s other open-seat race, the gubernatorial contest.

“We may see a little bit ticket splitting in terms of voting for one Democrat, one Republican between the Senate and gubernatorial race. That wouldn't be super surprising given how different the two Republican nominees are,” Niebler predicted.

On the gubernatorial ticket, polling places Democratic candidate Josh Shapiro, Pennsylvania’s current attorney general, with a 51-40 lead over his Republican opponent, Trump supporter Doug Mastriano, who was in the crowd at the U.S. Capitol when the insurrection occurred on Jan. 6, 2021.

Painting Oz as an out-of-touch carpetbagger, Fetterman has pulled stunts like launching an online petition to get Oz into New Jersey’s Hall of Fame and paying Nicole “Snooki” Polizzi, a breakout cast member of the MTV show “Jersey Shore,” to make a video telling Oz to “come home.”

It was only after Fetterman’s campaign trolled a video Oz had made in a Pennsylvania grocery store where he said he was shopping for “crudite” and lamenting the inflated price of vegetables that Oz’s campaign began attacking Fetterman’s health. 

“If John Fetterman had ever eaten a vegetable in his life, then maybe he wouldn't have had a major stroke,” a senior adviser to Oz snapped back, with more attacks on Fetterman's health following. Oz himself has tried to walk back such comments, saying he would not talk to his own patients this way, and admitting on NBC that, as someone who regularly treated stroke patients as a cardiothoracic surgeon before his TV career, he has “tremendous compassion” for what Fetterman is going through. 

Details about the full extent of Fetterman’s stroke have just come to light in the last few weeks. 

When he first won the Democratic nomination from his hospital bed in May, Fetterman's campaign referred to the stroke as minor.

“The good news is I’m feeling much better,” Fetterman tweeted after the primary, quoting doctors as having found that he didn’t suffer any cognitive damage and that his campaign wasn’t slowing down. “I’m well on my way to a full recovery.”

Campaign aides ultimately disclosed this fall that the stroke impacted Fetterman's ability to process speech. After months out of the public eye, Fetterman returned to the spotlight with a series of high-profile interviews with outlets like NBC News and New York Magazine, aided by captioning software that allowed him to read what his interviewers were saying in real time.

What’s more, he’s requested the use of the captioning system for his debate with Oz in just under two weeks on October 25.

“This type of use of technology to help a person through appearance within a campaign is fairly novel, especially in the Pennsylvania context. And I do believe if the Fetterman campaign frames the reasoning and the need for this type of supportive technology, it could actually be something that is both beneficial for their campaign and maybe in a broader sense, beneficial for people that are similar health challenges,” Borick said.

On top of the economy, and gas prices in particular, Fetterman’s health is expected to be target of the Oz campaign come debate night. Public safety could be another go-to, with Oz's campaign styling the Democratic Fetterman as soft on crime given his record of supporting criminal justice reform and decarceration.

Kristen Coopie, director of pre-law at Duquesne University, thinks economic-minded rhetoric will prove important to voters.

“Everyone is hurting because of the high inflation and rising costs of everyday goods — food, gas, you name it. The economy is an issue in every election, and voters often times vote their pocketbooks, asking themselves, ‘who is going to be the best candidate to improve my personal economic situation?’” she said.

Focus on the stroke may not sway Democratic voters away from Fetterman, Coopie continued, but the Oz campaign is hoping that Fetterman’s struggles will coalesce the Republican base or swing voters to his camp.

Borick noted, however, that generally, on issues like candidates’ health, voters do show a pretty significant degree of empathy. 

“Because so many of us have to deal with similar situations with ourselves, our families and our friends,” said Borick, who has experience researching public opinion. 

“That doesn't mean they don’t consider a candidate's ability to fulfill the role that the office requires,” he added.

Dagnes anticipates that Democrats will be looking at Fetterman to see if he’s cogent, because he’s appeared to be so all summer on his social media pages. 

“If suddenly he's not, then it does sort of beg the question: ‘Who's been doing the work for you?’ It's that authenticity, right? Americans really want to know, ‘Who's the real you?’” she says. “Who knows what flavor the American public likes? What they don't like, is being deceived.”

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