John Fetterman and Mehmet Oz finally debated in the Pa. U.S. Senate race. Here’s how they tackled the issues.
In their lone debate before polls close on Nov. 8, Pennsylavnia’s U.S. Senate candidates were grilled Tuesday night about where they stand on key issues.
As Republican Mehmet Oz and Democrat John Fetterman have relentlessly attacked each other in ads over the last few months, voters said the broadsides gave them much to work with. Tuesday’s showdown was the first and only time voters got to see the hopefuls debate their plans in real time. At the same time, the Department of State reports around 640,000 voters have already cast a ballot in the race.
“All that we get from people is their ads, and the ads have become more and more divisive and cutthroat,” Lebanon County voter Tom Maiello told WITF this month.
The candidates fielded questions on more than a dozen issues, from the minimum wage to gas prices to abortion. Despite repeated attempts to speak beyond their time limits or dodge questions, moderators Dennis Owens and Lisa Sylvester firmly pushed Oz and Fetterman to provide clarity on their stances.
WITF and WHYY also fact-checked the debate as it happened, providing context to claims from both candidates on everything from drugs and taxes to mansions and Bernie Sanders fan-boying.
Here’s how they tackled some of the issues:
Oz: I don’t think you should have to survive on $7.25 an hour. I want the minimum wage up as high as it can go.”
Fetterman: “I think it’s a disgrace that it’s $7.25 an hour. If you work full time, you should be able to live in dignity.”
The first questions the two hopefuls fielded Tuesday night revolved around the economic turbulence Pennsylvanians are experiencing. Moderators zoomed in on whether the candidates support a higher federal minimum wage, pointing out that Pennsylvania’s $7.25/hour wage lags behind all of its neighboring states, in some cases dramatically. That wage mirrors the $7.25/hour federal minimum wage.
Fetterman has consistently supported at least a $15/hour federal minimum wage, which labor advocates have urged for years, and repeated that position during the debate. He shrugged off a follow-up question asking whether small businesses would suffer if they had to pay higher minimum wages. Research from the Congressional Budget Office paints a complicated picture: while labor costs for businesses would rise in some cases, overall poverty levels among workers would drop if a higher minimum wage was implemented over time.
Oz’s response to the question suggests he supports a higher federal minimum. Rather than driving it up legislatively, he said he supports letting “market forces” – i.e. the expansion of Pennsylvania’s energy production market – dictate how high minimum wages should be.
Fitness to Serve
Oz: “I ruffled a lot of feathers on my show because I told people the truth, and I’m proud of that and I would do the exact same thing as a U.S. senator.”
Fetterman: “My doctors, the real doctors that I believe, they all believe that I’m ready to…serve.”
While both candidates have left voters wondering about their ability to serve in the Upper Chamber, everyone watching Tuesday’s matchup wanted to see whether Fetterman could assuage fears that he lacked the rhetorical abilities needed to do the job because of a stroke that nearly killed him in mid-May.
Though the lieutenant governor sometimes gave focused answers, most were short and sharp and at times lacked coherence. Fetterman has repeatedly said the stroke slowed his ability to process words in real time, which Nexstar debate hosts accommodated by providing live captioning technology. Last week, the campaign released an updated doctor’s note clearing him for high office.
Nonetheless, assessments of the Tuesday debate universally mentioned Fetterman’s poor rhetorical performance compared to Oz, a seasoned television personality.
Oz’s television career has drawn its own share of scrutiny. Over “The Dr. Oz Show’s” 13 year run, the celebrity played host to a range of medical gurus and alternative health practitioners that have, in some cases, been accused of selling bunk products and even defrauding investors.
Fetterman’s campaign has used that history to attack Oz as unfit.
In response to a question about whether he or his company profited from selling dubious medical advice and products, Oz said his show allowed those who were promoting those products to advertise, arguing the “The Dr. Oz Show” helped viewers “make their own decisions about their well-being.”
“It was a television show,” Oz said. “[Advertising] is a perfectly appropriate and very transparent process,” Oz said without elaborating.
Oz: “Any bill that violates…the federal government’s interfering with a state rule on abortion, I would vote against.”
Fetterman: “Roe v. Wade should be the law of the land.”
Since the U.S. Supreme Court overturned a nearly half-century of precedent on the legality of abortion, the topic has been up for grabs in political arenas across the country. Some states have moved to restrict the procedure, while others have pushed to make it more available.
How the federal government weighs in on the issue depends entirely on the fight between the two major parties for control of Congress. President Joe Biden has said he would push Democrats to codify the provisions of Roe v. Wade into law if the party holds its own next month. The issue is more complicated for Republicans, but at least one high-profile senator – Lindsey Graham of South Carolina – has proposed outlawing abortion after the 15th week of pregnancy.
Moderators repeatedly pushed Oz to stake out a position on that bill, which he has been reticent to do at times. The celebrity doctor has said he supports giving states the option to decide the issue themselves, adding a “woman, her doctor and local politicians” should be involved in the process.
Fetterman, meanwhile, said he supports Congressional Democrats’ goal of codifying previous court decisions on abortion into law. The lieutenant governor has tried to tie his Republican opponent to more extreme positions on the issue, though Oz has repeatedly said he supports states that offer exceptions for the procedure in cases of rape, incest or to protect the life of a mother. Pennsylvania is among those states.
Oz: “There’s no question that cutting out the middle levels of higher education and providing digital programs would reduce the costs of education.”
Fetterman: “I fundamentally believe that every quality public university education should be affordable in every state.”
Moderators asked the two candidates what they would do to bring down the cost of higher education. According to Forbes and the National Center for Education Statistics, a four year full time student is paying 180% more for the same college degree as they did in 1980.
Oz said he wanted to cut out “middle level individuals,” without elaborating who those people are or how they affect the price of a degree. He also said colleges and universities should offer more online classes because “half the kids don’t live on campus anyway.” Oz also characterized the Biden administration’s Student Loan Forgiveness plan as unfair and criticized Fetterman for supporting it.
“It’s about helping young learners at the start of their life, and I believe that a majority of Americans support that too,” Fetterman said in response.
Fetterman said the federal government should “provide the resources” to cut tuition costs, but did not elaborate about how he would accomplish that as a U.S. senator.
The two had a nearly identical approach to growing vocational education programs: partnering with labor unions to help students who graduate quickly find jobs.
Oz: “I strongly support fracking, drilling, piping up that natural gas.”
Fetterman: “I support fracking and I stand and I do support fracking.”
Both candidates appear to have shifted their positions on hydraulic fracturing, one of several energy production techniques in Pennsylvania. The number of jobs it has created and its contribution to the state’s economy have been disputed, but expanding fracking has been pushed by some as a way to help Europe solve its ongoing energy crisis over the War in Ukraine
Oz has said fracking is a “lifeline for this Commonwealth to be able to build wealth,” but moderators at Tuesday’s debate pointed to a 2014 article in which the celebrity doctor took the opposite position. Oz said fracking operations should be paused until authorities could study “multiple reports [in Pennsylvania] of air and water contamination, possibly from hydraulic fracturing sites, causing folks breathing problems, rashes, headaches, nosebleeds, numbness, nausea and vomiting.”
Oz didn’t directly answer the question, instead pointing to Fetterman’s own shift on the issue. Despite repeatedly insisting that he supports the energy extraction method, Fetterman told an interviewer in 2018 that “I don’t support fracking, at all and I never have.” Fetterman also drew criticism for his stance during his last U.S. Senate run in 2016.