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Will One Man’s Stroke Determine Control of the Senate?
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Will One Man’s Stroke Determine Control of the Senate?

John Fetterman’s recovery has become the central issue in Pennsylvania’s U.S. Senate race.

John Fetterman (Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)

YORK, Pa.—When Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. John Fetterman kicked off a Saturday rally in his hometown, he quickly tried to head-off concerns about whether the stroke he suffered in May will affect his ability to serve in the U.S. Senate.

“Dr. Oz, he never lets me forget that I had a stroke, he never—always remembers it,” Fetterman said of his Republican challenger Dr. Mehmet Oz, a former television host competing for retiring GOP Sen. Pat Toomey’s seat. “I can guarantee you there’s probably at least one person here in every event where they’re filming me, looking to have me miss some words.”

Fetterman’s stroke kept him off the campaign trail for months and induced aphasia, a condition that affects his ability to express and interpret language. As a result, Fetterman sometimes jumbles words—as he did several times during his 15-minute speech Saturday—a reality he often acknowledges on the campaign trail. He also uses closed-captioned transcription software during interviews to better interpret questions from reporters. 

His health has added a new wrinkle to a race that could determine which party takes control of the 50-50 Senate. With recent polls showing the race tightening (though with Fetterman still leading), Oz’s campaign has mocked Fetterman’s stroke and portrayed his poor health as disqualifying. “If John Fetterman had ever eaten a vegetable in his life, then maybe he wouldn’t have had a major stroke and wouldn’t be in the position of having to lie about it constantly,” Rachel Tripp, Oz’s senior communications advisor, told Insider in August.

Fetterman is telling voters he could recover by the time he would take office. He says he’s still able to read as before and hasn’t lost any memory and that the lingering auditory processing has abated over time. “To be precise, I use captioning,” Fetterman said of his stroke in an interview with NBC News that aired Tuesday. “Every now and then I’ll miss a word, every now and then. Or sometimes I’ll maybe mush two words together. But as soon as I have captioning, I’m able to understand exactly what’s being asked.”

Voters will likely have to take him at his word. Fetterman hasn’t released medical records since the summer, when he made public a June cardiologist’s letter diagnosing him with atrial fibrillation and cardiomyopathy and pointing out the candidate quit taking prescriptions and went five years without seeing a doctor. The cardiologist reaffirmed that Fetterman “should be able to campaign and serve in the U.S. Senate without a problem” should he follow her medical advice.

Fetterman has repeatedly committed to a debate with Oz on October 25, but his campaign has requested closed-captioning to help him interpret what is being said in real time. 

“If I was on that campaign, I would not debate and I would find a reason to pull out at the last minute and blame Oz for it,” said one Pennsylvania-based Republican operative.

That concern came to a head Tuesday evening, when NBC News released a pre-recorded in-person, sit-down interview between Fetterman and reporter Dasha Burns. “In some of the small talk prior to the interview before the closed captioning was up and running, it did seem that he had a hard time understanding our conversations,” Burns said before the interview aired.

A slew of reporters have criticized Burns’ on-air comments about Fetterman’s health, saying they saw no signs of him struggling to understand them in their previous interviews with him.

Republican operatives in Pennsylvania who watched the NBC interview saw something different. “We were just dumbstruck at how he was just fumbling for words,” said Jackie Kulback, who chairs the Cambria County Republican Party and was recently elected southwest caucus chair. “That was our biggest takeaway: How is he ever going to debate anybody?”

Outside groups are trying to change voters’ minds with big spending. The Mitch McConnell-aligned American Crossroads and its affiliated super PAC, the Senate Leadership Fund, has booked $38 million in Pennsylvania ads hitting Fetterman for property tax evasion, his positions on crime, and living off his parents until age 49. The Chuck Schumer-aligned Senate Majority PAC, meanwhile, had booked $32 million in ads as of August, one of which hits Oz for a recent report linking him to a Columbia University medical experiment that killed more than 300 dogs.

Back in Pennsylvania, at least some of Fetterman’s supporters, such as Gene Semder of Lancaster, left Saturday’s rally saying they’re encouraged.

“I think his determination surpasses his physical limitations,” Semder said, though she acknowledged that Fetterman is still on the road to recovery. “I was aware of the aphasia. He had some word finding issues, so there’s no question about that.” Semder, who works with children who have learning disabilities, added, “I don’t throw them away because they might not be able to spell a word or say a word.”

Her friend and fellow rally-goer Elaine Garyantes also said as much. “He has to talk about it head on, because Oz keeps saying bad things about him—that he’s not capable. He’s got his mind. If he doesn’t say a few words. They do the same thing to Biden, because he has a stutter and is older.”

Audrey is a former reporter for The Dispatch.