The dust hasn’t entirely settled on the midterm elections. But the takeaway seems clear: Democrats staved off the anticipated red wave, faring better than polling – or historical precedent – predicted. Indicative of the Democrats’ resiliency and good fortunes, and one of the reasons the Senate majority is still attainable for Democrats, is Democratic Senator-elect John Fetterman of Pennsylvania. Fetterman won a tight race over GOP nominee Mehmet Oz, despite delivering an epically bad debate performance against Oz, who had the backing of the GOP’s biggest name, Donald Trump.
I wasn’t super optimistic about Fetterman’s chances after his debate performance. The race was tight. And polling suggested his numbers were dipping in response to the debate. To be fair, while most debate performances are probably over-emphasized and over-valued, Fetterman’s was used a health gauge; the public had reasonable questions following Fetterman’s near-fatal stroke last Spring, like, does this man have the physical and/or cognitive ability to adequately perform the job requirements of a US Senator? That question lingered throughout the campaign and was sharply in focus for the one and only debate between Fetterman and Oz. Fetterman’s performance did little to assuage skeptics – or supporters. Frankly, Fetterman’s performance suggested he was not capable of executing the duties of the station he was seeking. Democrats prepared themselves to lose Pennsylvania. Obviously, that didn’t happen.
Much of the Fetterman campaign’s success can be attributed to social media. After Fetterman’s stroke, he spent two months recuperating at home. A stroke, followed by two months of rest, should have doomed Fetterman’s campaign. But Fetterman’s team engaged frantically on social media, mostly with the intention of “defining Oz as an out-of-state elitist by using a mix of memes, pithy tweets and, at times, the help of famous celebrities.”
Fetterman’s top adviser, Rebecca Katz, described the plan: “to define Oz early and define him as not being from PA or for PA.” The message stuck.
Still, despite the effectiveness of the Fetterman team’s messaging, which painted Oz as an out-of-town celebrity, questions about Fetterman’s health persisted.
Down the stretch, Pennsylvania became a full-blown battleground state. Tens of millions of dollars were poured into the race from outside groups on both sides. Former President Barack Obama came to rally on behalf of Fetterman. President Joe Biden did, too. For Oz, former President Donald Trump swung through. And that’s all significant – sitting and former presidents coming to speak on your behalf – but maybe the biggest endorsement in the race came not from a politician but from a media mogul: Oprah Winfrey.
Winfrey’s endorsement of Fetterman was significant in two respects. First, Oprah is simply a big deal. She’s one of the most iconic individuals in America; she’s a billionaire; she garners immense support among African Americans, women, and Americans, generally; she is considered a viable political candidate herself. Her recommendation – whether for food, books, or elected officials – carries weight. Second, Oprah essentially “made” Oz. It was Oprah who regularly featured Dr. Oz on her show, which of course put Oz in a position to launch his own show, which of course put Oz in a position to launch his own political career. Well, the Lord giveth and the Lord taketh. Before Oz could ascend to the Senate, Oprah swooped back in and hit the ‘reset’ button, telling Pennsylvanians she was backing Fetterman.
Oprah, Obama, memes – it all contributed to Democrats flipping Pennsylvania, and keeping the Senate majority in play. That doing so was accomplished with a deeply flawed, perhaps physically unhealthy candidate, makes the accomplishment even more significant. Now, hopefully, Fetterman is up to the task of performing as a US Senator.
Harrison Kass is the Senior Editor at 19FortyFive. An attorney, pilot, guitarist, and minor pro hockey player, he joined the US Air Force as a Pilot Trainee but was medically discharged. Harrison holds a BA from Lake Forest College, a JD from the University of Oregon, and an MA from New York University. He lives in Oregon and listens to Dokken.