If there’s any Senate race Democrats have consistently had reason to be optimistic about for most of the 2022 midterm cycle, it’s Pennsylvania. The reasons are numerous. The cycle started out with a divided primary on both the Republican and Democratic sides. The Democratic primary electorate largely rallied around Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman relatively early on and stayed there. The Republican primary electorate, meanwhile, remained mostly divided, resulting in a contested runoff with Mehmet Oz just barely eking his way into the general election. Since then, Oz has been the conventional wisdom underdog, having been pilloried by stories about his New Jersey roots, his comical culinary grocery lexicon, and his egregiously cruel medical experiments on dogs.
In the final weeks before the election, Oz and his allies have opted to hit Fetterman on, among other things, his ties to the Black electorate in Pennsylvania. The way the attack strategy is being executed makes the purpose clear: This is not about actually wooing African American voters away from Fetterman and toward Oz. Rather, it’s just to depress turnout among Pennsylvania African Americans—a voting bloc that usually comes out in droves for Democrats in statewide elections.
The most overt move (there’s also been coverage in conservative media of a “racism scandal” concerning a Fetterman TikTok video) by an Oz-allied group to cut down Fetterman’s Black turnout has been from the super PAC aligned with the Republican Jewish Coalition, RJC Victory Fund, which is backing Oz. The group has spent over $5 million this cycle, with about $4 million in funds spent against Democrats and the rest supporting Republicans. RJC has also aired ads in support of the Republican in the race for Pennsylvania’s 7th congressional district, where Representative Susan Wild, a Democrat, is running for reelection. The RJC Victory Fund is backing Republican nominee Lisa Scheller.
The ad against Fetterman is being fueled by $1.5 million in spending. It resurrects a by now well-known story about Fetterman from his time as mayor of the Pittsburgh suburb of Braddock in 2013, when he pointed a shotgun at a Black jogger.
“He didn’t even apologize, and now he wants our vote?” an African American woman in the ad says. Nothing in the ad urges voters to back Oz. Beyond that ad though, other Republicans have been working to peg Fetterman as a “racist vigilante,” an attack that’s in line with the RJC super PAC’s theme. Another RJC Victory Fund ad features a man reacting to the 2013 incident, saying, “Now this guy’s running for Senate. You can’t make this shit up.”
“I think what you’re seeing from outside groups is that they’re trying to suppress the Black vote,” said Democratic strategist Jeff Sheridan, a former campaign manager for outgoing Governor Tom Wolf. “They don’t want them to turn out for Fetterman.”
Fetterman has addressed the shotgun incident multiple times. In 2016, Fetterman told PhillyVoice of the 2013 incident that “this had nothing to do with race. The runner could have been my mother for all I knew, thanks to what the jogger was wearing.”
There’s a clear motivation behind the ad. African American voters have been a reliable bloc of support for Democrats in recent major elections in Pennsylvania. If Oz is to have any type of path to victory here—and polling shows him gaining some ground in recent weeks, although FiveThirtyEight still has Fetterman up by 6.6 percent—he will also need to cut down on Fetterman’s reliable sources of support. That chiefly means the Black vote. In 2020, according to exit polls, Blacks made up 11 percent of the electorate, and Joe Biden got 92 percent of the Black vote in Pennsylvania. Donald Trump just got 7 percent of the African American vote.
Similarly, in 2018, Democratic Governor Tom Wolf got 91 percent of the Black vote, while his opponent, then–state Senator Scott Wagner, got only 8 percent. In 2016, when Senator Pat Toomey faced Democrat Katie McGinty in the Senate race, Toomey won reelection while garnering only 10 percent of the Black vote, while McGinty got 90 percent. McGinty just barely lost to Toomey, with the Democrat getting about 47 percent of the vote while Toomey got about 49 percent.
For Democrats, the African American vote has been a mainstay of the party’s voting base in Pennsylvania. This year, the total voting population in Pennsylvania is slightly over 8.7 million people, about four million of whom are registered Democrats and 3.4 million Republicans, according to Pennsylvania’s Department of State Division of Elections. Within the Democratic voter base, about 17 percent is Black, according to Pew Research. Among Republicans, that number is just 2 percent.
The potential ramifications of depressing Black turnout among Democrats could be devastating. A depressed Democratic Black electorate would kneecap Democrats’ registered voter advantage. “Black voters are always the key for us winning,” said Pennsylvania state Representative Malcolm Kenyatta, a Democrat who lost to Fetterman in the primary.
Fetterman’s lead over Oz has been tightening lately. Which isn’t to say that it’s impossible for a Democrat to win with shrinking African American turnout. Biden won Pennsylvania in 2020 with “significantly lower turnout among Black voters, and [a] lower vote share among Latino voters, than Hillary Clinton had four years earlier,” Lara Putnam, a history professor at the University of Pittsburgh pointed out to me recently. “The math doesn’t work unless they can keep that Philadelphia vote down,” said Terrance Green, a Democratic strategist who has done extensive work in Pennsylvania. Green was referring to the high concentration of African American voters in Philadelphia and other high-density urban environments in the state. “So I can understand why they would want to suppress the vote. It’s a tactic that may have some saliency. I don’t know if it will work, but we’ve seen it before so it’s not surprising.”
2022 was supposed to be a devastating cycle for Democrats. But major events and missteps by Republicans have allowed Democrats to see pathways to victory they didn’t expect to have. Still, polls are tightening across the country, even in the states that were supposed to be difficult for Republicans—like Pennsylvania. “This is going to be a close race,” Sheridan stressed to me. “Oz is having enough trouble getting Republicans to come home to him because he’s uniquely unpopular and disliked.”
Oz’s allies clearly don’t see him winning solely by rallying base Pennsylvania Republican voters. They know that victory requires getting some Democrats to stay home. Sheridan predicted that the efforts by Oz and his allies targeting African American voters will ultimately be unsuccessful. But the outcome of the race—a race that Democrats have been counting on all year as a win and a crucial pickup, since the retiring incumbent is a Republican—may come down to how successfully Republicans drive down the Black vote.