Democrats are second-guessing the decision to put Pennsylvania Senate nominee John Fetterman on the debate stage after a stumbling performance that put the spotlight on his condition after a stroke while playing to Republican Mehmet Oz’s strengths. 

The state lieutenant governor’s auditory processing problems resulting from the stroke proved to be a major part of the debate just two weeks before Election Day. Fetterman had a number of awkward pauses and stumbles that are sure to be seized upon by the GOP. 

“Fetterman’s team never should have agreed to this debate,” one Pennsylvania Democratic operative told The Hill on the condition of anonymity. “He still clearly has serious health issues.”   

A second Pennsylvania-based Democratic strategist concurred.   

“It’s a good question,” the strategist said. “You can’t pretend you didn’t see what you saw. You can’t wish it or explain it away. You have to dig in and deal with it. It’s going to mean they’ll turn the heat up with Oz.”

Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) acknowledged on CNN’s “New Day” the debate “was hard to watch.” But he likened Fetterman’s performance to those by former President Trump in 2016 against Hillary Clinton and said voters would look at Fetterman’s record in Pennsylvania.   

Sen. Chris Coons speaks as Judge Amy Coney Barrett appears before the Senate Judiciary Committee on day three of her confirmation hearings to become an Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.

“His answers were halting and he didn’t understand the issues, and he was combative and aggressive. But millions of Americans voted for him because they liked his attitude and authenticity,” Coons said of Trump.   

“My gut hunch is a lot of Pennsylvanians when they see John Fetterman in his hoodie and his sweatpants, and look at look the record of what he’s done in Braddock as lieutenant governor will choose him over, quite frankly, someone who is, frankly, very polished on television, but has positions on things like abortion that are outside the mainstream of what Pennsylvanians will vote for.”   

The Fetterman-Oz race holds a uniquely important spot in this year’s midterms because it is one of just a handful that could determine which party controls the Senate 

Fetterman led in the polls throughout the summer and into the fall and for months after the primaries Democrats viewed Oz as a weak candidate running in a state won by President Biden. As a result, a loss would be particularly devastating to the party.    

Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate, right, speaks with Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., at Stolen Sun Craft Brewing Company in Exton, Pa.

The Democratic nominee after the debate pointed to a note from his doctor saying he was fit to serve and his campaign criticized what it called “error-filled” closed captioning. The closed captioning was requested by Fetterman and agreed to by Oz to compensate for the auditory processing issues. 

After the debate, Oz’s campaign stuck to talking points about the economy, fracking and crime. But others who support the longtime television doctor waded into talk about Fetterman’s situation.

“Anyone watching today could tell there was only one person on that stage who can represent Pennsylvania in the U.S. Senate: @droz,” said Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.), an Oz backer. “It’s sad to see John Fetterman struggling so much. He should take more time to allow himself to fully recover.”

Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., the ranking member of the Senate Banking Committee, talks to reporters at the Capitol in Washington.

Fetterman’s issues on the stage were clear from the outset of the hourlong event. In his introductory answer, the lieutenant governor, who used a closed captioning system to make up for his auditory processing deficits, told viewers, “Hi. Good night everyone.”  

After the opening 20 minutes of the debate, one national Democratic operative responded to The Hill with an emoji of a monkey covering its eyes.  

“I don’t think that the debate will be decisive, but I’d question anyone who advocated for Fetterman to do one at all,” the Democratic operative said after the debate. “The more this race has shifted its focus away from Oz and become a referendum on Fetterman, the worse it’s got. I don’t see how tonight helped.” 

The Fetterman campaign’s response to the debate was quick.  

Shortly after midnight, a campaign spokesman announced it raised more than $1 million in the three hours post-debate.

Fetterman argued that the note from a doctor saying that he “has no work restrictions,” coupled with his presence on the stage, should be enough to dissuade the need for him to release detailed medical records. The campaign has declined to do that since he suffered the stroke in May.  

The campaign also revealed in the ensuing hours that it would unveil a new ad highlighting what would otherwise be the major talking point from the event: Oz’s remark that abortion decisions should be made between “a woman, her doctor and local political leaders.” According to the campaign, the ad will “target suburban women voters across Pennsylvania in the coming weeks.” 

“Anytime you do debate prep, the number one thing you tell candidates is don’t say anything that becomes an ad,” said one Pennsylvania Democratic operative. “While we all watch debates, not that many other people watch them, but you just don’t want to f— up and create moments and Oz really failed at that.”

Former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell (D) told The Hill that while Fetterman “had some stumbles, the biggest stumble in the whole debate” was Oz’s abortion comment, which President Biden also criticized Oz for. The former Philadelphia mayor also argued that Fetterman had no choice but to take part.

Former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell fields questions about the state budget impasse following a health care bill signing ceremony at Holy Spirit Hospital in Camp Hill, Pa., in 2009.

“If he hadn’t done this, then people would say he’s hiding and [not] being transparent. … It’s damned if you do, damned if you don’t,” Rendell said, adding that he wasn’t sure how the debate will play with voters in the coming weeks.

“People were worried before the debate. They’re worried after the debate. They’d be worried if he hit a home run,” Rendell continued. “This is the time of year nobody is satisfied with anything. They are worried about everything.”

Democrats have attempted to keep the spotlight on Oz’s abortion comment, but the lion’s share of attention remains on Fetterman’s health and what transpired on Tuesday in Harrisburg.  

The Fetterman campaign did not respond when asked by The Hill about any details regarding the candidate’s debate prep.  

In a statement post-debate, Joe Calvello, a Fetterman spokesman, criticized the event — hosted by Nexstar, which owns The Hill — because the Democratic nominee “was working off of delayed captions filled with errors.” A Nexstar spokesman noted that Fetterman’s campaign agreed to the set-up for the closed captioning process. 

“Both candidates were offered the opportunity for two full rehearsals with the same equipment used in tonight’s debate; Mr. Fetterman chose to do only one. … It is unfortunate that Mr. Fetterman is now criticizing the closed captioning process employed by Nexstar during tonight’s debate,” Nexstar communications chief Gary Weitman said in a statement. “In fact, Nexstar’s production team went to extraordinary lengths to ensure the effectiveness of the closed captioning process, and to accommodate several last-minute requests of the Fetterman campaign. The closed captioning process functioned as expected during rehearsal and again during tonight’s debate. We regret that Mr. Fetterman and his campaign feel otherwise.” 

 One national Democratic strategist pushed back on the notion of most media attention being on Fetterman’s stroke, arguing that his performance isn’t a priority for voters.  

“Everyone knew John Fetterman was recovering from a stroke before the debate and I think after the debate everybody knows John Fetterman is still recovering from a stroke,” the strategist said. “So I’m not sure what is new or unearthed about that.”  

According to the most recent RealClearPolitics average, Fetterman leads by a 1.3-percentage point margin.  

The urgency to nab a win in the Keystone State was underscored earlier on Tuesday when the Senate Leadership Fund (SLF), a group run by allies of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), redirected $6.2 million in ad spending from New Hampshire to Pennsylvania. The ad booking lasts until Election Day.  

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., speaks during a news conference.

“We believe if we win Pennsylvania, we win the majority,” Steven Law, SLF’s president, said in a statement to The Hill. 

For Oz, the question in the coming days centers on how much he and his campaign directly use the debate against Fetterman. During the debate, Oz refrained from referencing Fetterman’s health and allowed the Democratic nominee’s answers to tell the story.  

“The question is how many people actually watched [the debate] live versus seeing news clips. And how delicately will Oz be able to turn them into TV ads without looking like he’s exaggerating (even though he’s not) to the people who didn’t see it live,” one Pennsylvania-based GOP operative said.  

Nevertheless, his campaign has to walk a tightrope in the coming days and weeks while it also continues to push its message that has been ever-present for months.  

“You go right back to your message: Crime. Economy. Competence,” one GOP operative involved in Senate races said. “Everyone’s talking about his inability to put a sentence together, but what’s more troubling about his candidacy are his radical policies on violent criminals and his blind support for Biden’s disastrous inflationary spending.” 

Julia Manchester contributed.