The return represents a significant step for Fetterman, who has only headlined a fundraiser and informal campaign gatherings while recovering from the stroke, which happened just days before the commonwealth’s Democratic primary. Fetterman, Pennsylvania’s lieutenant governor, handily won the primary anyway and has spent the ensuing months on his recovery as he looks toward the general election against Republican nominee Mehmet Oz.
“Before the 2020 election, I said that if I could know one single fact about the results, I could tell you who was going to win Pennsylvania. Whoever wins Erie County will win Pennsylvania,” Fetterman said. “Erie County is Pennsylvania’s most important bellwether county. I’ve visited Erie dozens and dozens of times in the past, and I am honored and proud to be returning to the campaign trail here.”
The Pennsylvania Senate race to succeed retiring GOP Sen. Pat Toomey represents Democrats’ best chance to pick up a seat in the evenly divided Senate during what is expected to be a trying midterm election for President Joe Biden’s party.
Erie is a strategic spot for the Democratic candidate – Erie County voted for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012, then switched to Donald Trump in 2016 before swinging back to Democrats in 2020 by narrowly backing Biden. Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf, with Fetterman as his running mate, carried the county by more than 20 points in 2018.
Despite being off the campaign trail for much of the summer, Fetterman outraised Oz in the second quarter – bringing in nearly $11 million for the three months ended June 30 compared with about $5.5 million, including $3.2 million in personal loans, for his opponent. Fetterman has also used a barrage of television ads and digital strategies to try to define the celebrity doctor as an out-of-state figure who moved to Pennsylvania from New Jersey to run for Senate.
Most recently, the campaign paid to run a billboard on the New Jersey side of the Betsy Ross Bridge, outside of Philadelphia. “Now leaving New Jersey for Pennsylvania … just like Dr. Oz,” the billboard reads.
Oz’s response – or lack thereof – has set off alarm bells within the Republican Party.
A Fox News poll released in late July found Fetterman leading Oz by 11 points – 47% to 36%. The poll also found that Oz supporters were far less enthusiastic than Fetterman backers, with 68% of the Democrat’s supporters saying they did so enthusiastically, compared with 35% for Oz’s backers.
Of late, the Oz campaign has targeted Fetterman’s recent time away from public campaigning.
In a video posted in July, Oz notes that “Fetterman is back on the campaign trail” as he laces up his shoes to go on a run.
“I’ve been praying for him. I am glad he is OK. … Now that he is back, John Fetterman can’t keep hiding from voters forever,” Oz says as he jogs. “I am glad Fetterman is healthy so we can worry less about his heart and his hoodie and more about the crazy leftist ideas in his head.”
Fetterman’s return to the campaign trail has been slower than some top Democrats in Pennsylvania had anticipated. People close to the candidate made early promises of a quick recovery for the lieutenant governor, but those hopes was dashed by the seriousness of his illness and gravity of his initial condition.
“I could have died,” Fetterman said in June about the significance of his stroke.
Fetterman headlined a closed-press fundraiser hosted by Democratic Jewish Outreach Pennsylvania in late July. Event organizer Jill Zipin told CNN that the candidate “didn’t slur his words” and “spoke clearly” for around 20 minutes but did speak “a little slower or a little more halting” than before the stroke.
“People were excited to see him healthy. He did look fit and healthy,” Zipin said, adding that Fetterman spoke about his health and was “transparent with us about his experience” but told the audience that he was “on the road to recovery.”
In his first interview since the stroke, Fetterman told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in July that he wouldn’t be in the race against Oz if “we were not absolutely, 100%, able to run fully and to win, and we believe we are.”
This story has been updated.