This week, his campaign put out two statements ridiculing Fetterman’s diet and accusing him of being too ill to withstand debates. Oz and his campaign have also been working behind the scenes to convince prominent conservative figures — including those who were once detractors — to publicly rally around him. Republicans hope that delayed support from influential conservative commentators will help him persuade unenthused rank-and-file GOP voters to come home to him.
“He has turned the corner,” said John Fredericks, a conservative radio host and Trump ally who encouraged the former president to endorse Oz in the primary. “One of the key reasons he’s done that is he has been able to now meld together the entire MAGA movement, which is coming behind him because they don’t want Fetterman.”
Oz’s efforts have led to a much-needed show of support for him among voices trusted by Republican voters, including on social media, where he has been hammered by Fetterman as an out-of-touch carpetbagger from New Jersey. But the fact that he is still working to shore up his standing with the GOP rank-and-file this late in the summer underscores his challenges in the election, and could detract from his efforts to win over independents.
Oz hobbled out of a bitter, expensive primary — one that went to a recount after millions of dollars of attack ads targeted him — with 31 percent of the vote and a major problem on his hands: Much of the Republican base did not like him. That has helped Fetterman take the lead in the polls.
Fredericks said he encouraged Oz to reach out to high-profile conservative figures. A person familiar with Oz’s conversations also confirmed he has recently been making calls to them. A second person, who is in Trump’s orbit, confirmed that the former president’s aides have also solicited help from top Republican operatives to attempt to help Oz in a race they believe is still winnable.
“Trump world is going to try to save Oz’s ass,” regardless of if they’ve been disappointed with his post-primary performance, the person said. The people were granted anonymity to speak frankly about internal campaign deliberations.
Multiple nights this week, Fox News host Laura Ingraham has devoted segments to blasting Fetterman in an effort to boost support for Oz among Pennsylvania’s Republican base — after openly criticizing Oz throughout the spring primary. Conservative commentator Ben Shapiro released a seven-minute video Sunday attacking Fetterman, followed by a segment on his podcast this week doing the same. And despite speaking ill about Oz as recently as last week, far-right personality Jack Posobiec has rapidly upped his attacks on Fetterman.
Similar messaging in recent days has come from other notable conservatives, including Donald Trump Jr., Kimberly Guilfoyle, Stephen Miller, Steve Bannon, Newt Gingrich and others.
At the same time, Oz’s campaign has dramatically escalated its attacks on Fetterman, including over his health and spotty appearances on the campaign trail.
Fetterman held his first rally since his stroke in Erie earlier this month, and gave remarks in Pittsburgh this week at the United Steelworkers’ international headquarters, his second official public event of the general election. He didn’t take questions from the media at either stop.
Oz has challenged Fetterman to five debates. The Fetterman team has said he is up for debating, but not on Oz’s terms, and has not RSVPed to anything specific.
On Monday, the Oz campaign used Fetterman’s unwillingness to commit to debates as a way to draw attention to his health. “If John is too sick to debate and is concerned he cannot stand in front of cameras for more than 10 minutes, then he should just say so,” Oz spokesperson Brittany Yanick said Monday.
On Tuesday, the campaign took it to another level, with spokesperson Rachel Tripp saying, “If John Fetterman had ever eaten a vegetable in his life, then maybe he wouldn’t have had a major stroke.”
Many Republicans have been animated by the attacks on Fetterman’s health and debate-dodging. Conservative media widely circulated footage of Fetterman’s speech to union workers on Tuesday, in which he sometimes paused awkwardly and missed words, including during a special segment on Fox News Wednesday morning. An edited video showing various clips from the event has been viewed more than 1 million times on Twitter.
But some GOP consultants question whether it’s a good strategy for Oz. Republican strategist Doug Heye said that it’s fair for Oz’s staffers to highlight Fetterman’s disappearance from the campaign trail, but their attempts to politicize his health this week need work.
“I think there are ways to do it while still running quality campaign messaging,” Heye said. “If the campaign makes over-the-top attacks like we saw [Tuesday], that has the effect of making Fetterman more sympathetic to voters, a lot of whom have health issues.”
Joe Calvello, a spokesperson for Fetterman, said that the Oz vegetable remark was “extremely insensitive and frankly unhinged,” and charged that “Dr. Oz literally does not know how to talk about the real issues that matter to Pennsylvanians.”
Calvello said Fetterman has been honest about his health problems, acknowledging that he is in speech therapy and is having “trouble with some hearing and auditory processing.”
Oz campaign manager Casey Contres and campaign adviser Barney Keller said they called moderators of the debates that Oz agreed to on Monday and all said they had heard nothing from the Fetterman campaign. The Oz team also said that there have been no behind-the-scenes negotiations with the Fetterman campaign about debates.
The Fetterman campaign did not answer a question about whether it had responded to the debate moderators.
“His health is not an issue. We hope he has a speedy recovery, we hope he gets better,” Keller said. “The issue is he keeps lying about his health. I think the reason is clear: He won’t debate because he had a major stroke.”
Democratic strategists said Oz’s attacks on Fetterman’s health come from a place of weakness, in particular a need to appeal to the GOP base. They said his team’s latest criticism about eating vegetables also shows that Oz doesn’t understand Pennsylvania, the land of cheesesteaks and pierogies.
A Democratic pollster who conducts focus groups for campaigns in Pennsylvania said that swing voters don’t bring up Fetterman’s health problems themselves while discussing the Senate race, but when they are asked about it, they tend to find it relatable. The pollster was granted anonymity to describe proprietary research.
A letter from Fetterman’s physician released in June, which not-so-subtly chastised him for not following doctor’s orders before his stroke, resonated in particular.
“50-year-old women from Delco, they’re like, ‘Oh yeah, that’s my husband,” said the pollster, referring to a Philadelphia suburb. “‘Oh God, are all men this way?’”
At the same time, Oz’s attacks about Fetterman’s health have turned off voters, the person said: “We heard it in our groups over and over. People just intrinsically don’t like the idea of attacking somebody for their health.”
While Oz struggled for months after the primary to raise money — and at one point reportedly vacationed in Ireland, drawing criticism from GOP insiders that he wasn’t taking the race seriously enough — Republican operatives are now trying to spread the message that all is not lost in Pennsylvania.
Following weeks of Fetterman posting double-digit leads in public and internal polling, including by as much as 18 percentage points, Republicans saw a flicker of hope this week in two new polls that found Oz down by only 4 points.
“We’re lightyears away from Election Day, and the Oz campaign is stepping up,” said Ward Baker, a Republican strategist and past executive director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee. “Remember, the Republican primary was a bruising one not that long ago, and wounds are healing. No one has yet fully prosecuted Fetterman, but the advertising gap has been reduced. Pennsylvanians will find out how liberal he is — that he’s even more radical than Bernie Sanders.”
The Senate Leadership Fund, a super PAC aligned with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, announced earlier this month it was increasing its fall ad buy in Pennsylvania to $34 million, including launching its first spot three weeks ahead of schedule. Late last week, Trump announced he would be holding a rally for Oz and Republican gubernatorial nominee Doug Mastriano over Labor Day weekend — his first general election rally of the midterms.
“Pennsylvania voters deserve to hear from [Fetterman] vs. Oz in debates” and after Fetterman’s recent public appearances “now they will demand it,” said David Urban, a GOP strategist who worked on Trump’s 2016 campaign and supported Oz’s top opponent in this year’s Republican primary. “I think Oz has a path if he gets to debate and talk about issues and the differences” between him and Fetterman.
Added Dave Ball, chair of the Washington County GOP in western Pennsylvania: “I’m sure the Democrats would like to believe the Republicans have written this race off, but that’s anything but true. This is an important race and we have a good candidate and the Democrats do not have a good candidate, and it’s winnable.”